More people than ever before are online. Bill payments, concert tickets, banking, airline booking and check-in, income taxes...it's all done on the Internet today. Not to mention the fun stuff such as blogs and email and Facebook, or the titan online purchase portals eBay, Amazon, and others from which we buy everything imaginable. Expedia and Orbitz offer travel bookings, Tiger Direct, New Egg and MicroCenter consumer electronics, and Cabela's, L.L. Bean and REI outdoor equipment. Restaurant reviews, GPS, up-to-the-minute traffic advice -- what a connected world we live in today! And do you know anyone who has bought a music DVD lately? Probably not. MP3 downloads -- and not just from iTunes but from all over the web -- worldwide have tripled in just the past year to a staggering 6.7 million per week! Internet use is growing -- no, make that exploding -- in ways many could not have predicted. Social media leader Facebook just announced its first public stock offering (with a suggested worth that will make this premiere Internet destination rival McDonalds), eBay has quietly become the arbitrator of the value of consumer commodities, more than two thirds of all new car purchases originate online -- yes, online, your local public library freely checks out eBooks by authors Connelly and Grisham for 21 days at a time, and the FBI now devotes a full third of its resources to combating cyber crime, as the globe goes online. More importantly, people are connecting. To each other. People are discovering their ancestors, connecting with folks forgotten since grade school, even forming online networking professional groups on services such as LinkedIn. The Internet has taken over as the vehicle through which society conducts both its work and leisure lives. And more. It's become the modern version of the traditional social club. The place where people visit, share, and talk about life. When even the IRS promotes filing online; when the computer has replaced the party telephone line; when the U.S. Post Office starts worrying about the effect of email, you know the Internet has made prime time!
Part of this astounding acceleration in online activity is due to the Internet being simply more accessible than ever before. Fully 87 percent of the world's population -- the world's population -- has a mobile account. Not too hard to believe as you sit at the stoplight and see the grade school kids walk home with cell phones stuck to their heads, huh? In fact, more people globally have mobile accounts than own personal computers! With over 300,000 mobile apps and over 8 trillion texts moving through the airwaves in 2011; with tablet use nearly doubling during the same period and Apple selling a record number of iPhones (devices that not only tell you where to go for dinner, but literally -- literally -- dialogue with you on your choices of both cuisine and travel routes) -- the world has hugely and firmly embraced the personal electronic ethic. Yup, it's happened. The lives of virtually everyone on the planet have become "hardwired" to a 2 ˝ x 5 ˝ inch chunk of really smart plastic!
The fallout of this fantastic emerging global connectivity is a consumer who is empowered at a totally new level. Not only can he or she find a particular business —no matter how unique or where located, but they can also, more importantly, interact with that business on a purely service driven level, and actually grade and review their experiences with that business -- whether good or bad -- online. YouTube for example has long since become the de facto place to post grievances with retailers (witness songwriter David Carroll's experience with United Airlines, and his resulting speech before Congress on the plight of the consumer), and business review sites Yelp and Angie's List (both of whom went public this past year) have moved into the spotlight as must-use consumer tools. Powersports shoppers now use their smartphones and special apps to scan product bar codes and compare specs and prices from other retailers, in real time, right in the store, and industry analysts tell us consumers think price first, as they always have, but now it's other users' onine reviews that are next on the list, second only to price. Shoppers all over have learned to value the experience of others, because for the first time in history it is so easy to get this information. This is electronic empowerment, of a kind that exposes billions of potential customers to a level of information and knowledge that not only amps up their influence, but also offers the benefit of knowing who the great businesses are, or aren't. Viral consumerism has arrived.
And the truly wonderful thing about it all is there are two sides to this. Increased connectivity for the consumer also means increased exposure and brand awareness for retailers and their suppliers. OEMs Kawasaki and others have had an official YouTube channel for several years. Services such as YouTube, Google Places, Facebook, Yelp, and many others offer ways to get your business noticed, while a host of online marketing experts such as Powersports Network (PSN) and Powersports Marketing help you do it effectively. And it doesn't have to be elaborate. Most dealers have electronic parts lookup systems, many of them driven by PSN, and many offer online test ride reservation and service appointment scheduling. Thompson's Motorsports Kawasaki in Terre Haute, IN and UV Country Kawasaki of Alvin, TX have added to their sites YouTube videos, some instructional and some just plain fun, but all of them marketing tools. Chapparal Motorsports Kawasaki of San Bernardino, CA boasts the world's first Internet dealer tire locater with over 10,000 tires searchable! Online classifieds leader CycleTrader now has an app that opens up mobile access to over 150,000 new and used motorcycles for sale by retailers all over the U.S., a service some OEMs are using, resulting in some 300,000 to 600,000 searches per month, per brand! The powersports industry is increasingly at the forefront of the new opportunities that are emerging on the Internet.
One area where the powersports industry is quickly catching up is online reviews. What are online reviews? Think star ratings such as on Amazon. Best Buy, Sears and Wal-Mart also added consumer reviews to their websites in 2007, countless other retailers have in the time since, and even the world's major hotel chains, traditionally reluctant to bite the online review bullet and until now rated by third party travel organizations, added consumer reviews to their websites in 2012 in a move to leverage the consumer review phenom for business purposes. Along with Facebook, Google Places is emerging as the tool for powersports dealers to establish their presence and collect customer reviews as part of their marketing strategies, and industry marketing consultant Powersports Marketing, an arm of Georgia-based Dealership University, is there to help make the transition as painless as possible. Tory Hornsby of Powersports Marketing says, "€śWe're doing for dealers what Amazon and the Apple store do for their retailers." That is, providing 5 star ratings that help dealers, resulting in proven impact on the bottom line, as well as marketing tools to help them collect and manage the online activity information of their customers. Even Yelp claims each of the stars in its rating system has proven to be worth a 9 percent gross increase to a business. Think of that -- 9 percent!
What it all amounts to is a shift in marketing best practices toward a Voice of the Customer paradigm that potential customers intuitively value above the things the industry has traditionally communicated in promoting itself. Industries outside of powersports have made the shift after confirming that what works for the customer also works for the retailer. Use Facebook. Use YouTube. Take advantage of what Powersports Business magazine columnist and PSN business development manager Neil Pascale has called a social media-addicted world. The point is, if you're a powersports businss, the customer counts, like never before. And what the customer says about you is more valuable to you, and to other customers, than even what you think and say about yourself. Permit and value that voice. Let social media help you focus on customer reengagement in 2013.