IT USED to be so simple. In the good old days you printed 10,000 leaflets and delivered them door-to-door in your locality. If marketing savvy, you'd pen a press release to get the local rag covering your manufactured happening.
Then came the web.
Got a website? Great, but does it connect to a blog? Do you ‘hang with the kids’? You're nobody if you're not somebody on Facebook or MySpace.
Think you're clever because your blog has an RSS feed? Pah! Too slow. Blog stars are now micro-blogging from their PCs and texting bon mots, all via Twitter.
Do you embed YouTube videos of your mechanics at work? Sorry, grandad, you're living in the Dark Ages. Now it's all about live streaming of video from your mobile phone using a service like Qik.
It's easy to dismiss newfangled social media - ‘conversational marketing’, if you will - as the CB radio of the moment, something that will be popular for a while but quickly fade. However, take a look at the next generation of your customers. Check out what the ten year-olds are doing. They're not just texting, they're being trained in social media on lots of levels. Scope Club Penguin, it’s Second Life for wee ‘uns.
In the future it really won’t be enough to have a store, a website and an ad campaign in the traditional media. It might not be enough now. Competitor bike stores aren’t across town, they’re anywhere in the world. You’ve got to reach out to new customers, and keep the existing ones in the loop.
You may think your customers are more interested in going on long bike rides than hanging out in cyberspace. But what if they could subscribe to a feed which sent them a text message, via Twitter, from you, on their long ride, informing them the latest hot widget had just arrived in-store and that it would be available to the first ten customers who instant messaged back?
Andrea Casalotti of classy London bike shop Velorution has a popular blog but also sends messages via Twitter, most of them sales oriented.
"We don't use Twitter for networking, but for micro-blogging," said Casalotti.
His most loyal customers subscribe to his Twitterings and get a kick out of knowing the ins and outs of the store, without having to live in.
Conversational marketing is the next logical step for companies to connect with their top customers.
It’s an opportunity to use technology to make a personal connection with customers, building inter-connected relationships of the sort that you used to only have with ‘best mate’ customers.
But for Australian bike shop worker - and industry veteran - Philip Gomes of Northside Avanti Plus in Sydney, many bike stores don't even open emails, never mind send messages to Twitter or the like.
"I'm constantly astounded how many retailers don't check their email daily, or at all. You need to get that right before anything else."
To promote the store he works for, he posts audio comments to Utterz.com and sees a big future for social networking tools:
"These services allow you to produce content, and reach people whereever they are and in a variety of ways; that is a huge potential marketing plus.
"Retailers will have to learn how to incorporate these tools into their daily routine because their customers will eventually demand this kind of interaction."
Ben Cooper of Glasgow bike shop Kinetics devotes time to talk to his customers via his website and blog:
"The point of having a web presence for me is to sell stuff. Having a website definitely does that. Having a blog does, as I can mention all the new stuff that I haven't had time to put on the website yet. Having a MyFaceTubeBeboSpaceTwitter page doesn't, as far as I can tell, help me sell stuff.
"I could spend a lot of time on all the cycling web forums being helpful, in the hope that it'll bring business. But it's a lot better to produce as many happy customers as possible who will go onto the forums and tell people about us for free.
"One site I do use a lot, though, is Flickr. My most viewed pictures on Flickr are the bike-related ones, and they have led to a bunch of sales."
Tim Jackson, brand manager of Masi Bicycles in the US, is an arch social conversationalist. He Twitters, he has a blog, he shares pictures of his socks, he podcasts.
"Twitter is an interesting platform. I love the immediacy of it," said Jackson.
"I have a MySpace page, but it's static. YouTube is something I plan to begin using way more than I ever have in the past. I plan to do many educational videos going forward."
He warns that social media can schlurp time, but handled wisely, the fantastic cost-to-benefit ratio can be worth it:
"It is very easy to spend an entire day - and all night - working on these things and not much else. Don't get sucked in. Realise that a little goes a long way: a short blog post, a few tweets, or a weekly podcast can create a big impact, with little effort. The return on the investment is exponentially greater than the input."
Are you up to date
Really Simple Syndication - 'news' feeds. Subscribe via an RSS aggregator so you can read all your fave websites in one place. Not all websites have RSS feeds so use Page2rss.com or Dapper.net to create feeds and set up alert emails.
WordPress. Blogger. TypePad
Web-logging is more personal that websites, and blogs are fiendishly simple to create and update. To find popular blogs, use Technorati.
Twitter. Pownce. Jaiku. Tumblr.
Twitter is the biggest, with millions of users. It's real-time micro-blogging, limited to 140 words. Type and/or read from PC or mobile phone. Posts are called 'tweets'. You can see who else someone is following and who is following you.
Singletrackworld.com. MTBR.com. BikeBiz.com
This is the oldest form of holding conversations between online community members.
Bookmarking and Tagging
Digg. Reddit. Delicious. StumbleUpon
These tagging sites are a popularity index of news, blog postings and fave websites.
Subscribe to this alerts service by supplying keywords, and you'll get emails with all the news on that topic from a list of news websites around the world, including BikeBiz.com.
Facebook. Ning. Myspace.
Now no longer for kids and bands. A social networking site for business users is LinkedIn. It shows who knows who.
YouTube. Metacafe. Vimeo. Viddler. Blip.tv
Videos from all these sites can be easily embedded in blogs, which is one way of videos spreading virally across the net. Get it right and your marketing message can be seen by millions of people. Check out willitblend.com.
Qik is for streaming live (and very shaky) video from mobile phones.
Seesmic. Viddler. Utterz
Linked, video conversations between community members. It's a bit like video pen pals.
VOIP and instant messaging
Internet-transported telephone calls. And video.
Audio files delivered automatically to your PC or Mac and then to your iPod. Apple's iTunes is the biggest source of podcasts, including video podcast.
Texting: it's what opposable thumbs were invented for.
Second Life. Club Penguin.
Fly around a virtual island using an avatar, a made-up persona.
iCal. Google Calendar. Dopplr.
If you have a calendar on your PC you could hook it up to the internet for all to view.
Net stars prefer Flickr. As well as pix, Flickr now stores and shares videos.