The Original Social Network

Nov 9, 2010

“Social Networking” is the big buzz in marketing today.

Facebook and Twitter are all the rage. Both may have their place in your shop promotion, but when it comes to “friending” enthusiasts (and creating new enthusiasts) nothing beats a good old-fashioned car show to cover both the social and the networking parts of marketing your performance shop.

Actually, there’s nothing old-fashioned today about some of the new online tools available to help you market your car show. I’ll touch on those later. But first, let me clarify-this isn’t a comprehensive article about how to run a car show. This is an article about how to get the most marketing mileage out of your car show.

So, whether you’ve never held a car show or if you’re an old pro at it, I hope to help you turn it into more sales for your shop. Holding a car show is one thing. Being able to turn it into sales is something entirely different.

Sell-abration

The goal of a car show as shop marketing is what I’ll call “selling as celebration” or “party as promotion.” Pulling together a couple cars in a dark parking lot on a Tuesday night may draw a small crowd of hardcore enthusiasts. But when you add music, food, drink, vendors and awards, you can turn your car show into a big event that will draw big crowds, build excitement and get you, the organizer, better recognized and remembered.

Take the “Saukville in September” Car Show in Saukville, Wis. What started 23 years ago as a school fundraiser with about 80 cars has grown into about 450 vehicles, a dozen vendors and thousands of attendees.

Show organizer Phil Vincevineus of Holeshot Customs/Pleasant Valley Auto Body has created a day-long family event that draws participants and attendees from miles around and sponsors and door prizes from across the nation.

Most rewarding, all of the proceeds from the car show go directly to the Saukville Fire Department ($5,000 to $10,000 annually, depending on the weather). All the checks for the Saukville car show are written directly to the fire department.

“They also get all the bills,” says Vincevineus. But in the end, every penny of the proceeds goes directly to the fire department.

The entry fee is a modest $5 per vehicle for the judged event and nearly 180 trophies were awarded to participants in over 50 categories this year. The event kicks off with a pancake breakfast at 8 a.m. and wraps up with an awards ceremony at 4 p.m.-making this a jam-packed day of music, drink, food, fun and, of course, cars.

“My idea is to keep all the prices reasonable,” Vincevineus says. “We don’t charge people to come and look at the cars. And if while they’re here they buy some food and drinks for their family, I want them to feel like they’re leaving with some money left in their pocket. I think that’s what gets them back next year.

“In my mind, don’t have a car show to make a bunch of money for yourself,” he continues. “I do it for the fun and to give back to the community. If I get anything back in business, that’s just a bonus.”

Here are some pointers on how to develop your own car show as a marketing event.

Timing is Everything

Like any event, a successful car show starts with choosing a time, date and place. Check the local calendar to be sure your show isn’t conflicting with any other major event. Or better yet, find a popular parade or festival that draws big crowds already and try to dovetail your car show with it.

Talk to event organizers about the benefits of holding your events in cooperation. You could add some cars to their parade and put your show somewhere along the parade route. Or you could have your car show at or near their festival to draw more attendees for both of you.

In Franklin Park, Ill., the Village and Park District cosponsor a car show and street dance just a few blocks from my office. They shut down about four blocks of downtown and turn it into a huge party. The car show is on one block, the music, dance and food are in the middle and kids activities and inflatables are on the opposite block.

I don’t know if it started as a dance, car show or both, but they work well together. The dance draws people to the show, the show draws people to the dance, and the kids come along for the fun.

When you are setting a date, be sure you can live with the day you pick. If you plan on this becoming an annual event and not just a one-time marketing ploy, you’ll want the event to happen about the same time every year so people will slot it into their mental calendar.

For instance, every year I look forward to my family taking me to the Greater Illinois Region Classic Car Club of America’s Father’s Day Car Show at a nearby Oak Brook Shopping Center, a huge outdoor mall (the show will celebrate its 43rd year in 2011.) It helps that the show has chosen a memorable date and a great venue to keep people coming back. (Or more likely that the venue has chosen them.)

Start the Party 

A fun party starts with fun people. In much the same way, a great car show starts with having great cars.

A good way to get great cars is to start planning well in advance and get the word out as many different ways as you can. Let your customers know you’d like them to participate when you see them, or do a mailing/emailing to them. You also may want to call some of the nearby car clubs to ask them to participate and help you get the word out to their members.

Vincevineus visits other nearby car shows and approaches their participants about being at his show. (Don’t think of it as stealing participants. You’re not competing with any other shows; you’re just adding another event to the car show circuit.)

Collect as many email addresses as you can while you’re getting the word out. Mailings can be expensive. A phone campaign can be time-consuming. But an email program can help you keep in touch with a lot of participants at one time for a nominal cost.

To communicate about your event with prospective participants, consider an online service like Constant Contact’s Event Marketing service (conta.cc/eventmktg). For as little as $15 a month, you can use this online service to communicate event details with participants and prospects, gather their registrations online, and even collect entry fees using your PayPal account.

Constant Contact’s service also provides detailed reports telling you specifically who opened your email, who registered and who paid their entry fee. And it will also help you to seamlessly integrate all your event communications with social media like Twitter and Facebook. (As I said, they do have their place-especially with the younger crowd.)

Constant Contact offers a no-strings-attached free 60-day trial, so you can try it before you buy it.

Email marketing can also help you keep in touch with attendees. Collect email addresses of attendees so you can thank them for coming after the show and remind them of the show as it starts approaching next year. Don’t just send out one email reminder. I suggest you start reminding them a month before the show and remind them more frequently as the show draws closer.

Publicize the Event

You can never over-promote your car show. Here are just a few of the most common ways to draw attention to your event. But don’t throw away any other ideas, from billboards to radio spots, if you can get them for low or no cost

Posters – You can reproduce 11×17 posters fairly inexpensively at the local copy or print shop. Be sure your shop’s name and/or logo is clearly and predominately located on all your marketing materials and try to include your shop number (i.e. “Questions? Call Stanley’s Speed Shop at 555-555-5555”).

Then spend time going door to door asking others in the business community to help you promote your car show with a poster in their window, on their door or on their events bulletin board. Be sure to hit auto parts stores and repair shops where the customers and employees may be likely participants as well attendees.

While you’re going door to door, it’s also a good time to hit business owners up for sponsorship.

“It’s easy to turn down a letter (asking for sponsorship),” says Vincevineus. “It’s a lot harder for them to say no when you’re standing in their shop or call on the phone.”

Flyers – Your copy or print shop can help you shrink down your poster to an 8.5×11 or 5.5×8.5 handbill that you can leave on counters of businesses and/or park districts, libraries, etc. This is where working with a non-profit can come in handy. While a library may not allow flyers for a local business, they may allow you to promote an event benefiting a non-profit.

Also, be sure to give copies of your flyer and a PDF to the non-profit you’re working with. They may mail or email flyers to their local constituency and donors to raise awareness of your event.

Mailers – Again, your printer or copy shop can help with this. If you create a one-sided 8.5×11 flyer, you can tri-fold it down and label it with prospective participants’ names and mail it out.

Or write a personal letter to prospective sponsors, vendors or restaurants that might be interested in participating in a financial way. You can also mail your packet to national sponsors looking for door prizes or sponsorship dollars.

“One year, Sanderson gave us a set of headers to give away,” Vincevineus sys. “It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Ads – An ad in the local newspaper can be relatively inexpensive. You might be able to swing free advertising by giving the newspaper a free sponsorship in return. This is an especially good approach if you’ve decided to make this a charitable event.

Banners – Start putting up banners around town and in nearby towns announcing your car show along with the date, time and place a month or so before the show. Ask your sponsors to put up a banner for you at their business.

“I’ve got sponsors as far as 35 or 40 miles away putting up my show banner at their business,” Vincevineus says. “That just draws more people in from farther out.”

Also, be sure you have as many banners as you can at the event with all the sponsors’ names on them. Branding is the reward for their sponsorship.

Enjoy the Show

Once the hard work of promoting your event is done, it’s time to enjoy all the fruits of your work. While you will most likely spend the lion’s share of your time checking in registrants, resolving problems, tabulating ballots and managing the awards, you should also make time to actually walk the show.

This is your opportunity to spend face time with customers and prospective customers and build rapport with them. Compliment guys on their cars. Ask someone to consider judging at your show next year. Invite guys to stop by your shop anytime to see what you’re working on. Just be friendly and enjoy yourself. Remember, this isn’t about hard-selling-it’s about making it fun and keeping it light.

Then, following up after the car show can help assure that you’ll have a well-attended show for years to come.

During the show, it’s a good idea to ask one or two people to take photos for you. Once you get the photos back, pick out the highlights and make some prints for participants. Or better yet, post them online with a photo sharing service like Snapfish, Flickr or Shutterfly.

(I use Google’s Picasa Web-picasaweb.google.com-because I’m familiar with it and it’s free for up to 1GB of photos. You can even use Picasa Web to add a slideshow to your website or blog.)

Once you post the photos online, send out an email to participants and attendees with a link to the photo gallery. (For some odd reason, people love to look at photos of things they’ve done!)

Don’t forget to thank everyone who helped and participated. Constant Contact’s Event Marketing program offers a high-tech approach to thanking everyone. But, especially for folks who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, I think a handwritten thank you note is much more meaningful. (When was the last time you got a hand-written thank you?) Again, the goal here is to build relationships.

Another important part of follow-up is to get feedback on how things went. You can do this with a written survey or informal phone calls. Or, SurveyMonkey.com offers a free basic plan so you can survey up to 100 of your participants for free (or pay for more surveys).

The service allows you to chart results and analyze feedback so you can see the trends in their responses.

Once you’ve posted your photos, thanked everyone and have feedback on what worked and what didn’t, stop and relish the moment. Don’t let negative comments get you down. There’s always room for improvement.

For now, focus on what went right. Take a day or two to enjoy your achievement. But don’t relax too long. It’s already time to start planning next year’s show!