Written by Michael Bowen
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Marketing your dealership used to be so much simpler. There was television, radio, newspaper, and direct mail — and that was it. Those were the days weren't they. Today, however, with the advent of the Internet, things have changed. Now every dealership, big and small, has to have a Website in order to survive. It doesn't matter if you're a small dealer in rural Alaska selling trucks and 4x4s or a luxury dealership in Los Angeles selling Porsches, without a Website, you might as well not exist. Websites are only one aspect of Internet marketing, however. In order to really take advantage of the changes brought on by the Internet, you need to have a marketing strategy that takes advantage of all the Internet has to offer in order to help you grow your business and succeed, in good times and in bad.
Internet marketing has many different facets, from Search Engine Marketing (SEO) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to promoting your online presence with your offline marketing efforts, Website building, and everything in between. In order to help you negotiate the maze of different strategies and technologies that are out there, we spoke to several Internet experts and convinced them to share some of their secrets with you.
This is the 21st century and simply having a Website is no longer sufficient to satisfy your customers. In today's market, you need to tailor your Website so that your customers can easily find what they want without searching through your entire site. One of the most common mistakes that dealers make when building their Websites is to make consumers click through multiple pages to find what they're looking for.
"The main thing is to limit clicks for shoppers to find the information they seek. The bailout rate is about 23 percent per click so if pre-owned inventory is three clicks from the home page, you lose about three quarters of those shoppers who came looking for a pre-owned car," explains Jason Ezell, national sales director, director of industry relations, and one of the original founders for DealerSkins. "Eliminate dead-ends, pages that do not ask a shopper to contact the dealership. Every click should funnel a shopper into a purchase decision or contact point. Once they get to your vehicle details page, do not give them eight options from there. This only delays the buying process."
Tom Knoop, director of search engine marketing for Stevenson Advertising agrees and adds that "every single page needs a field where the customer can contact the dealer. There must be a phone number, email, location, or some other button that they click on to contact you, because if they don't contact you, they won't become customers."
Building a Website that is easy to navigate and offers visitors multiple ways to contact your dealership doesn't mean that your Website can be boring or lack information. In fact, just the opposite is true.
"Dealers need to make their Websites a destination, not an advertisement. Interacting with a Website is a different mindset than being hit with a TV spot or a billboard. If I am going to a Website, I expect it to be intelligent, detailed, well laid out, and informative," offers Keith Burwell, vice president of sales and business development for Kaleidico, a software firm providing solutions for online lead management, delivery, and analytics. "One doesn't need to capture my attention, I went there willingly and with a purpose, as opposed to a TV spot."
Of course bringing in traffic to your Website is only part of Internet marketing; you still have to convince them to buy and, just like in the offline world, customers like to walk the lot and kick the tires before they make their decisions. On the Internet, however, customers can't walk around your lot and see what's available; you have to upload the information and photos for them. As Jason Ezell says, "Make inventory the central focus of the site as this is what 74 percent of shoppers are coming there for: specific cars, prices, and pictures. Have multiple ways to get to inventory and search inventory: cars under 10K, low mileage, etc."
Al Babbington, CEO of OneCommand a leading provider of multi channel marketing solutions, agrees and adds, "A dealer's Website must be an extension of the showroom. Visitors should be able to browse current inventory, view sales and service incentives, and be able to easily get into contact with dealership personnel."
Jason Ezell agrees with the importance of having specials on your Website. "Specials every week; 'specials' is the second most clicked page of a dealer Website and almost 70 percent of dealers do not have specials on their site on a regular basis. Shoppers want to see what's on sale, what good deals are available," he tells us. Specials don't have to cost your dealership a lot of money; there are many different kinds of specials that can convince a customer to choose your dealership over another. For example, "cars that were going to go to the auction should be placed in 'wholesale to the public' type specials," Ezell says. "Grounded demos, specialty vehicles, aged inventory, etc. all make great specials."
Promoting your inventory online
It is vital to have your inventory on your Website if you want to bring in customers from the Internet. There is more to promoting your online inventory than simply listing the vehicles you have available, however. You need to engage the visitors to your site and one of the best ways to do that is video. With the advent of sites like YouTube and the increased availability of broadband Internet, video is fast becoming an essential part of any Internet marketing plan. "Without a doubt, incorporating video on the dealership Website is one of the most important tools to include [in a marketing plan]. Video offers a rich media experience for consumers and increases excitement and emotion," confirms Dean Evans. "Videos also increase search relevance to help increase organic search rankings."
Jason Ezell agrees and explains that "online, we only have the sense of sight to appeal to. So finding ways to promote the vehicles in the best light is vital. Video gives the shopper a full 36° view and presentation on that vehicle."
Videos are a great way to promote your vehicles, but not all dealerships have the time and personnel to make a video for every car they sell. Whether or not you use video, however, it is still essential to have as many photos as possible of your inventory online. "Cars with four or more pictures get four times as many leads, so have as many pictures as possible," advises Jason Ezell of DealerSkins. "Having a mix of interior and exterior pictures is vital, as almost half of all new cars sold in America are bought by female buyers. Their number one concern is interior usability so having no interior pictures of your vehicles alienates this huge market," he continues.
Besides videos and images, there are new technologies that can help promote your online inventory, such as the mobile Web. "Among the most important new tools we've seen is the expansion of Internet marketing to the mobile Web, allowing consumers to shop your lot and schedule services, all from their smart phone," explains Al Babbington.
"Mobile device compatible Websites are becoming increasingly important as consumers use and shop on hand-held devices more and more. If your dealership Website isn't compatible, then they will find another dealership that is when they are on the go," adds Dean Evans.
Be careful though that you understand how to use this technology to sell more cars. "Like all new trends, there's a lot of hype and vendor claims of which dealers should be wary," warns Al Babbington. "A more fully formed view is a strategy centered around the consumer texting in a code which then drives the consumer to a specific mobile Web page. This not only gets the consumer to the right page on the mobile Website with far less work for the consumers, but it creates text messaging opt in."
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and a myriad of other social networking sites are everywhere these days. It seems like everyone has a profile online somewhere, but what does that mean for auto dealers?
Social networking is new and some dealers have been reluctant to get involved, however, many others have realized that this is a trend that won't go away. Perhaps the names will change, but the idea of online communities is here to stay. The reason for the popularity of these sites is obvious. "People want to know what other people have experienced owning a certain vehicle to help minimize their chance of making a poor decision," explains Jason Ezell of DealerSkins.
Some dealers may be reluctant to involve themselves in social networking and online communities; they may reason that this is not an effective way to market their vehicles. They are wrong. A helpful analogy here would be sponsoring a local baseball team. Many dealerships do this and, for the most part, all they get is a few signs and maybe a patch on the team jerseys, so why do they do it? The answer is simple, and it is the same reason you should invest in social marketing: It tells your customers you're not just there to make money; you want to be a part of their community.
Another advantage of social media is the ability to connect with customers and give them the information they need in an environment that they find comfortable: their computer desk. "Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, can allow informal discussion without the heavy pressure both parties feel. In person, the salesman 'needs' to close the deal and the customer knows it," offers Keith Burwell. "Online, it is just about developing a rapport and building a relationship. Walls come down when people engage this way." And when walls come down, sales go up.
Another aspect of social media, to which it is essential that all dealers pay attention, is online reviews. Today on the Internet you can find reviews on everything, from the Transformers movie to Colgate's new toothpaste flavor and everything in between. This is nothing new; it is only the scale that has changed. In the past, if a person had a bad experience with a business or product they would tell a few people. Now with the growth of sites like Yelp.com and DealerRater.com those same customers can let thousands of people know their opinion, positive or negative. This might scare some dealers, but it shouldn't. This is an opportunity to change the unhelpful opinions many people have about auto dealers and turn them into happy customers. In order to change those opinions, however, you have to let consumers drive the conversation and listen to what they have to say.
"One the most overlooked opportunities that social media presents for dealers is the ability to 'listen' to what consumers are saying about their dealership and their vehicles," confirms Dean Evans of Dealer.com. "Increasingly, shoppers are going to talk about the dealership online. Smart dealers will get involved in the conversation. They can't control it, but they can be an active part of it and help guide the conversation."
Dillon McDonald, chief operating officer for Jumpstart Automotive Group agrees, but reminds us that "for dealers with great customer service, this will result in accelerated growth and profits and, of course, the opposite for those who have not appropriately invested in the customer experience. The right engagement strategy with this new world is to firstly, do good business, because the consumer is watching and is more empowered than ever."
Although social media is a great way to stay in touch with your customers and find out what they're saying about your dealership and the vehicles you sell, there are other social media sites, specifically for auto industry professionals that can help you learn about the industry and share your ideas with others. "Using networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, dealers can engage customers and prospects in a completely new way. Dealers also have an opportunity to use social networks, like DrivingSales.com, to interact with other automotive professionals to share strategies, best practices, expert opinions, and other thought leadership and news items," explains Al Babbington of OneCommand.
Combining traditional marketing and Internet marketing
Ten years ago, a Website was just a marketing add-on; today it is the first view most of your customers have of your dealership, because the Internet is the first place most customers start their vehicle search. Conversely, however, most customers still hear about your dealership through your offline advertising. What this means for dealers is that it is time to stop separating Internet marketing and traditional marketing. All of your offline advertising needs to lead to your Website and your Website needs to reflect what you say in your offline advertising, this creates synergy in your marketing. Synergy is an overused word, but what it literally means is two or more things that when combined create more than when they act separately, which is what happens when you combine your offline and online marketing.
"Based on the data, there is no better way to promote your Website than through traditional marketing an online placement. In other words, advertising your Website address in every ad medium you use generates the best results," confirms Jason Ezell.
One of the reasons that many dealers' online and offline marketing do not work in sync is because their advertising agency and their Website provider do not work together. "Your Website provider should give you the most powerful Website with the most effective backend tools and your ad agency should give you the most cutting-edge creative and marketing strategy," offers Dean Evans. "They should work together as a team and share information; work in partnership with the Website developer and the agency to maximize the investment for dealers."
Measuring your success
John Wanamaker, whom many consider the father of modern advertising, once said, "I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half." That, however, was the nineteenth century and things have changed. Today with the marketing metrics made possible with the Internet and other new technologies, you should be able to calculate your return on investment so that none of your budget is wasted. This is one area where the vast majority of marketing experts agree.
"The statistical information we gain from shoppers 'tire-clicking' is vital to running all aspects of the dealership," says Jason Ezell. "These stats can tell us exactly where a dealer's marketing dollars are best spent, which cars are most and least popular, and what other cars a shopper is considering before sending a lead. In the 'new economy,' this data will be invaluable."
Tom Knoop affirms the importance of metrics to your Internet marketing efforts and advices dealers to install Google Analytics on their Websites. He believes "every dealer should have this on their Website. Its benefits are endless, but just to name a few, it tracks what pages are viewed, how long visitors stay on the site, and how they got to your site in the first place. Did I mention it's free?"
Website analytics allow you to see which aspects of your marketing are working and which need to be changed or eliminated. "What is and isn't working should be a constant discussion," adds Keith Burwell. It is that constant discussion that is essential to the success of your marketing, both online and off. Marketing is not a destination; it is a journey. Remember, however, when you measure your marketing efforts to compare your online and offline efforts, you may be surprised which forms of advertising deliver the best return on investment. As Dillon McDonald reminds us, "Measure traditional media and digital media against the same scorecard, which is a mix of car sales, audience engagement, and leads generated "not solely lead count."