Leaf through the Classic Car press and every now and again a scare-story emerges that blames Social Media for the demise of the traditional classic car club. The nature and extent of the reported ‘demise’ often varies, but the reasons are the same, and usually rest on a series of assumptions drawn from facts in a recent survey:
Club membership across the board is static or dwindling - Fact. There are too many free web forums and people can obtain their information from knowledgeable sources on social media without ever needing to join a Club - Assumption.
More classic car owners are socialising online - Fact. People are no longer interested in the traditional ‘pub meeting’ and this damages the ‘community spirit’ of the Club and subsequently the take-up of membership - Assumption.
But is Social Media really the death knell for the traditional classic car club? We don’t think so. In fact, all of our evidence is suggesting that Social Media - and particularly Facebook - can offer considerable competitive advantages to positively benefit a club’s growth strategy. It’s not killing the clubs - as we will explore in later blogs, there are many contributing factors to static or dwindling member numbers - but Facebook does signify the need for a fundamental shift in the way clubs present themselves and attract new members. If you can’t adapt to that, you’ll very quickly find yourself out of the loop at some distance from the ‘hub’ of online enthusiasts, who represent your prime captive audience.
Why isn’t Social Media to blame?
There is a huge hole in the argument that Facebook is the problem. Primarily, it perpetuates the myth that, left to its own devices and with no external influences, a classic car club would continue to grow and prosper the way it always had done ad infinitum, and the recent statistical downturn in membership take-up is solely down to social media or “the internet”. This cannot be true because the perceived ‘problem’ is not a new one. The ability to share information freely across the internet has been around for over 20 years from a time when most people’s online ability was based around email. But the downturn in club membership is a more recent phenomenon. So what has changed about the internet and car enthusiasts’ use of it?
Let’s look at the development of ‘social’ internet sharing resources for the classic car enthusiast, which has gone through 3 distinct phases in the last 20 years.
The Mailing List Server
In the 1990s help was generally obtained through the use of ‘mailing list servers’, and in the P6 community we were not alone. The late Eric Russell of the Rover Car Club of Canada started the RoverNet in 1995, a hugely successful operation which we believe is still in existence. It is the forerunner of the more modern ‘community forum’ and the spiritual successor to the original purpose of a classic car club.
Using a mailing list server, subscribers could send an email to a single address which would then forward their email to all subscribers of the list. Every subscriber would then receive it, and have the opportunity to respond to a given question or request for help. This is the digital equivalent of the ‘registers’ and ‘guilds’ that were founded in the 1950s-thru-1970s, such as the Rover Sports Register and Rover P4 Drivers’ Guild, which were formed primarily to provide every member with the contact details and car information of every other member on the register so that technical information, parts and support might be easily swapped through a single postal-driven resource. Unlike the traditional clubs however, the RoverNet did not require a paid-subscription.
The Community Forum
Community forums have been in widespread existence since at least the turn of the millennium and in some instances before. They were far more liberating than the Mailing List Servers, and allowed members to self-publish articles, pictures and even videos for all to see. Replying to posts was much more structured than the mailing list format, as you could trace the development of a group conversation chronologically. But crucially, it acted as an active archive resource, because every post remained accessible to every user so you could read about the solutions to technical problems that a fellow member had years before, and glean all the information you needed without having to ask again. This active and historic resource for sharing information in a structured way naturally led to the development of a ‘community spirit’ in an online setting. In some senses, the spiritual parallel to the ‘pub meeting’ and ‘club magazine archive’, but on a global scale that is instantly accessible.
As Community Forums developed, clubs began to recognise their significance and hosted them on their own websites. This gave clubs the option to ‘lock down’ certain content for members only, or open it up to the wider ‘free access’ community. This sense of ownership of the forum gave a comfortable feeling to the managing committee of the club and it was generally viewed as an important club asset, and another reason for joining. But there was often a gulf between allowing people to freely access your resource and giving them a sufficiently convincing reason to part with their cash and join the club. In short, ‘closing the deal’ was haphazard and often lacked a strategy, which normally pushed managing committees toward restricting more and more information to members only, which is arguably less attractive to potential new members browsing the site.
The story was more complex in the Rover P6 world. The Rover P6 Club does not have a dedicated web forum. Back in 2002, the late Richard Taylor, then webmaster for the P6 Rover Owners Club, started a free forum on behalf of that club. Richard’s forum was hugely successful with members all over the world contributing their time and knowledge to help others, regardless of whether they were P6ROC members.
The Rover P6 Club saw the rapid rise of this forum and recognised its potential for driving its own membership growth. The Club attempting to follow the P6ROC’s success with its own forum, even writing the creation and maintenance of a forum into the Club’s constitution; such was the conviction behind the need for it. But despite all best intentions to build a forum within our own website, The Rover P6 Club’s forum failed miserably due to the dominance of Richard Taylor’s already well established and well run forum.
In 2009 Richard’s forum parted ways with the P6ROC to become the Classic Rover Forum, an independent Rover forum not linked to any club. On the surface this looks like a disadvantage because content can no longer be gated, but on the flipside the Forum is a bustling hive of active like-minded P6 enthusiasts who are regularly coming back to contribute. That is a captive audience of prime potential members for us to promote our activities to.
In recent years, the rise of Social Media has been viewed as a challenge to the Community Forums as well as the traditional classic car clubs. For avid users of Community Forums, it can be a source of some bitterness as their active and vibrant communities sometimes become more subdued. But for the classic car club managing committee it represents far greater challenges, and in the 5 years or so since its widespread adoption by large swathes of society, social media can be shown to coincide with static or dwindling membership figures.
So what has changed?
At first, it’s difficult to work out why. How does Social Media differ from a Community Forum at its basic level? Both exist to provide information freely to any web user, both have online communities of regular faces, and both can be searched as an active and vibrant archive of technical support. On the surface, they’re both the same, so why do clubs perceive that Social Media is causing problems with growth and sustainability?
We touched on it earlier - it’s to do with the control of information. Social Media takes classic car discussions and knowledge sharing out onto universal platforms, and therefore out of the control of the clubs. For the user, this is a considerable advantage as it consolidates their interests in one place. Simply by registering interest in a car on Facebook, pictures, content and discussions will be pushed directly to their social media newsfeed, and it is easier than ever to add comments, videos and discussion from any device anywhere in the world. These are the people using a tablet computer on their sofa, or a smartphone on their morning commute, leafing idly through everything they might have registered interest in.
But for the club it means fewer discussions are hosted on the club’s website with the result that information can no longer be ‘gated’ to members only, thus watering down any incentive to join. But more importantly, greater numbers of people seeking out discussions and knowledge sharing about a particular car are no longer driven to the Club’s website in the first place, meaning ‘awareness’ of the club, its activities and even its benefits, is diminished in the mind of the new-coming enthusiast who believes he or she can find everything they could want on social media through the people willing to give in-depth technical assistance and encouragement in the digital community for free. It couldn’t be easier to find.
Why is it so popular?
Facebook’s dominance lies in the fact that it is increasingly seen as the “one-stop shop” for news, articles and interesting discussion of any nature, and it can be tailored quickly and easily to present only the information that any individual might want to see. At the time of writing, there are 5 separate Facebook groups and pages dedicated to the Rover P6 alone, representing well over 1000 different people. In The Rover P6 Club’s group alone, at least one new person is registering interest every single day. And the Club is not alone with a Facebook strategy: British motoring history resource AROnline have an enormously successful Facebook presence with over 4,600 followers. The glossy classic car press are doing the same, as are several classic car insurance firms.
The key to Facebook’s success is its accessibility. Everybody can find, post, comment and share information of any format from virtually any device easily and instantly. Complex multimedia files, such as videos with subtitled captions and voice-overs, can be shot with a mobile phone from under the bonnet of a car and shared across the world in moments by an individual who need have little or no understanding of the technologies he is using - people in every age group are doing this, and you don’t have to look far to find them! There are 1.44 billion active users of Facebook alone - a fifth of the world’s population - and there is a popular misconception that they are all younger members. Whilst it is true that younger people do frequent Social Media, they are not alone, and the silver surfer ranks well amongst the numbers of online ‘socialites’. It is a wholesale transition. Whether we like it or not, Social Media is here to stay, and this represents a considerable challenge to the traditional operating models of classic car clubs.
Should Classic Car Club management committees be afraid of Facebook?
Amidst the doom and gloom of the negative press around Facebook (and sometimes just “the internet” as a whole!) are a handful of clubs that are using the power of Social Media to their advantage. The Stag Owners Club and we in The Rover P6 Club are both extremely active on several social media channels, and both have clearly thought-through strategies and reasons for using it. The Stag Owners Club have presented to the FBHVC on how their philosophy is positively encouraging interest in the cars, and The Rover P6 Club’s strategy is helping to turn the potential ‘threats’ of social media into a competitive advantage that can positively benefit member experience and also promote growth.
‘Get found’ vs ‘get noticed’
Classic car clubs will slide further into obscurity if they don’t promote themselves in the same social media arenas that are swelling with enthusiasts contributing more content, discussion and pictures every day than a Community Forum might have got in a week. Years ago, that information wasn’t so readily available so people were naturally forced to seek out a club. Back then, the clubs just needed to ‘get found’, and that usually meant a decent website, part-gated community forum and a stand at the NEC Classic Motor Show. These days clubs need to ‘get noticed’, and that means taking themselves out onto social media to talk-up what they offer, promote their activities, give away teasers of the magazine, and in all respects give every non-member the feeling they are ‘missing out’ on so much more interesting content, support, articles, discussion and above all a sense of ‘belonging’ because they haven’t joined yet.
Does it work?
In The Rover P6 Club we have seen huge growth through Social Media. After launching a proper Facebook strategy in September 2013, numbers of new joiners has substantially increased. A consistent average of 18% of all new joiners say they first heard about us through Facebook - that’s nearly a fifth. Even more interesting is the pie-chart below which shows the ages of all new joiners (grouped into decades) who found us through Facebook in the final quarter of 2014, finally debunking the myth that Social Media is only a place to find younger people.
Facebook isn’t killing the classic car club. On the contrary, it is directly contributing to a swelling interest and enthusiasm for classic cars across all age groups, but not least the vital younger profiles. It achieves this by centralising all of that enthusiasm on a single, universally accessible platform that is the biggest social hub on Earth. But by this very nature, it therefore takes traffic away from the websites of classic car clubs. Some see it as a double-edged sword, but we needn’t be afraid of it. Facebook has the power to do a lot of bad, but equally the power to do a lot of good for your club. It all depends on how you chose to use it. Facebook signifies the need for a fundamental shift in a club’s promotion and engagement strategies. It is generating rich captive audiences of prime potential members organically without any effort on behalf of the club, but you have to engage directly with them if you are to stand any chance of attracting them as members.
In a future blog, we will explore how just having a Social Media presence is not good enough. Whether you like it or not, social media is here to stay and a simple page describing activities of you club is just one part of the overall picture, there are many more details that need to be explored on how you use your Social Media presence to your best advantage.