Sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Twitter allow you to do more than stay in touch with friends and relatives. Properly used, they provide a low-cost channel to connect you with car buyers and market your dealership.

As with other online advertising efforts, there are rules of the road to keep in mind. Let’s look at five tips that can help you implement an effective social media program:

1. Build your network. Get your social media program off to a good start by asking your loyal customers, new prospects, employees, friends and family to participate. Include a link to your pages on these sites on your website and in your email signature. Each person you add creates a multiplier effect that increases your visibility and produces opportunities to reach in-market shoppers.

2. Engage with car buyers. With social media, your success hinges on having a meaningful dialogue. While you’ll want to promote new arrivals, specials and upcoming events – even job openings – don’t let the discussion become one-sided. Pose open-ended questions that prompt a response, for example, or ask customers to share pictures of their recent purchase from your dealership. Most important, it is essential to offer content that provides value to the relationship, such as the latest review of a new car, advice on how to get better fuel efficiency or tips for maintaining your car.

3. Reward your friends. Encourage participation with special offers that aren’t available anywhere else. The occasional parts or service discount or free car wash demonstrate your interest in communicating outside the traditional showroom process. These incentives also give consumers a reason to connect with you online while paving the way for them to come into the store.

4. Monitor the conversation. Just as you watch what car buyers say about you in other online venues, don’t overlook their comments on social media sites. Tracking the conversation allows you to answer questions, acknowledge compliments and address problems.

5. Maintain clear boundaries. While your real-world friends may enjoy debating political opinions of seeing your vacation photos, online car buyers prefer a neutral relationship. The best way to win their business – and referrals – is to focus your posts on the vehicles you offer and reasons to buy from your store.

    To ensure long-term success, you’ll also need to tap one or more people in your internet department who can manage your presence on a day-to-day basis. Ideally, they’ll enjoy the work and be able to balance it against other priorities. Chatting with a customer about a new model in next year’s lineup may be fun, but it should never stand in the way of quickly responding to lead senders or fully merchandising your listings.