The internet age is no longer on the way; it is here now. For auto dealers the question is no longer whether or not to have a website, but what kind of website and web resources they should use to reach the vast majority of consumers that are searching the internet for their next vehicle. Although the internet is now the place where the majority of customers start looking for a vehicle, it is still new and many dealers continue to figure out the best way to use their websites and the internet to grow their businesses. In order to help, we’ve spoken with a panel of experts to bring you the very latest in best practices and marketing techniques for the internet.

The first thing that dealers need to realize is that the internet has become the first, and sometimes only, place that consumers go to research and sometimes even buy their new vehicles. This means that dealers must change the focus of their advertising and marketing. On this all of our experts agree.

“Our old marketing pushed consumers to visit the dealership. New marketing needs to push consumers to visit the website. The reality is automotive websites are now the hub of the industry’s sales operations as far as consumers are concerned,” explains Dean Evans, CMO of Dealer.com, a leading provider of online marketing solutions for the automotive industry. “If your organizational structure isn’t aligned with this, then you can bet you’re losing business every day.”

“The website is really the dealership or the point of initial contact for the consumer and the actual real physical dealership is becoming less important than the virtual one,” adds Ray Fenster, VP of business development for AutoUpLinkUSA.

Interacting with consumers online

Just because the internet has come of age, does not mean that it is not changing. Consider television; TV has been a major focus of dealer advertising for decades, but that doesn’t mean that the same ads that worked in 1979 would have worked in 1999 or 2009. What was once cutting edge on television is now considered hokey and passé and the same is true on the internet. If you want to stay in front of consumers, you have to keep your website and internet marketing up-to-date.

One of the most significant effects the internet has had on dealership marketing is how it has changed the way that dealerships and consumers interact. “Online communication is becoming more of a two-way dialogue between consumers and businesses, rather than one-sided, business-controlled messages and information,” explains Dean Evans. “[In the future] online retail success will become more about listening to and participating in a conversation with consumers.”

“They [dealers] have to talk differently. They can’t talk over someone’s head; they have to talk with the consumer, not to the consumer and there’s a difference there. They have to start learning from what ad agencies have been looking to do for years in connecting with the consumer,” continues Ray Fenster.

One of the most important aspects that is driving this trend towards greater interaction between dealers and customers is the advent of social media, particularly online review sites, where consumers can share their experiences. Although this may seem worrisome to many dealers, it should be viewed as a new way to communicate with consumers and, more importantly, to let them communicate with the dealership. “Letting the public ‘experience’ your dealership’s customer service through user reviews (now available on sites like DealerRater.com) is a great way to allow shoppers to see your customer service policy in action, vs. the days of saying, ‘We have the highest CSI of any Honda dealer in the state.’ This scares a lot of businesses, not just dealers, because they can no longer control the message as they could in the mass media age that dominated the 20th century. But, this is the reality,” offers Dean Evans.

“Today maybe one in ten automotive consumers rate their dealership experience online on dealerrater.com or other online review sites. In the future, nine out of ten, or even ten out of ten will do so. The increased transparency that we are currently witnessing will continue in a big way,” adds Todd Smith, founder of ActivEngage. “While these channels are still in their infancy, the potential power is being explored by progressive dealers who are getting out there and connecting with people through online social media and networks.”

Fortunately, there are new tools such as live chat, online video, and interactive forums that can help dealers communicate better with their customers and keep them from navigating away from the dealership website to find what they need. “Combining quality information with stimulating multi-sensory applications such as video and live chat is a great way to engage consumers. As they expect more instant gratification online, any steps dealers can take to make their sites more interactive, more robust, and easier to find online, adds the most value. Email blasts, direct mail, etc. simply have a lower return on investment than continuously perfecting the dealership’s online presence,” continues Todd Smith.

On the other hand, as Danny Sanchez, president of Auto Shop Solutions, warns, if your website doesn’t have the features consumers have come to expect, you can hurt your image in the eyes of the consumer. “The lack of a professional website signals to an online shopper that the business may not be here to stay,” he says, and in today’s fragmented car market consumers do not want to do business with a company that they think isn’t going to be around in the future.

Analyzing the results

One thing that almost all internet marketing experts agree on is the importance of tracking the results of your internet marketing. “Since the web is so measurable, every dollar allocated can go miles beyond the traditional advertising budget. But many dealers do not understand or take advantage of the data analysis available. When you effectively monitor your metrics, you can make sure you’re only paying to market to consumers who are interested; you show up only where you’re wanted. This is still a huge area to create greater efficiencies,” says Dean Evans CMO of Dealer.com.

Interpreting web analytics can be a daunting task at first. There is a lot of information available and it can be difficult to know which information is important and what all the numbers mean. If you’re just beginning to use analytics on your website or your internet marketing, you can start by just concentrating on the basics: website traffic, traffic to lead conversion, and lead to sales conversion. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, but it does need to be monitored regularly,” explains Todd Smith.

It also helps to think of your internet marketing in the same way you think of all your marketing efforts. “Monitoring your internet campaign is much like monitoring your business. There are key performance indicators (KPI) that can help the dealer fine tune their online marketing strategy,” explains Danny Sanchez. “For example, one KPI we watch closely is the amount of time the visitor spends on the dealer’s website. When we see that number drop below our benchmarks, we know the site has become outdated or uninteresting to the consumer and needs to be updated.”

“By using better analytics…dealerships [can] continue to tweak every piece of their online presence and their response to online communications from customers, and improve their results in all of these elements,” imparts Ryan Mull, managing partner at Web design and internet marketing firm IMAVEX. “The ones who figure this out will continue to outperform their competition and generate a much higher profit ROI.”

Integrated marketing

Many dealers still consider their internet marketing efforts separate from their offline marketing, but in order to succeed in today’s marketplace, “You’ve got to combine and coordinate your message to the consumer,” asserts Ray Fenster. “It gives a clear message, it helps you brand, and you do not confuse the consumer.”

One of the difficulties with integrating your online and offline marketing has been that oftentimes a dealer’s advertising agency and their website provider don’t coordinate their efforts. “Your website provider should give you leading online technology and tools and your agency should provide regularly updated, consistent creative content. They should collaborate directly to optimize content, promote events and specials, brand your online presence, and help broadcast your marketing messages,” advises Dean Evans.

“There are endless opportunities to create cross linked marketing campaigns using traditional advertising and driving traffic to online marketing. The combination can be very effective in capturing leads,” iterates Danny Sanchez.

Integrating your marketing does not have to be a complicated task. Danny Sanchez reminds us that integrating your marketing can be as simple as “sending a mailer with a link that takes prospects to an online coupon is a great example of cross marketing.” Other examples such as placing your web address in all your television and radio commercials or creating online videos of you TV commercials have also been shown to be very effective and are inexpensive to implement.

“The internet doesn’t work like a yellow page ad; you have to work at driving traffic to your website by using search engine marketing (SEM) and continually improving your organic search results by using search engine optimization (SEO). The most successful online campaigns use a balanced marketing plan to target qualified leads and get them on the website,” he adds.

The most important thing to remember about internet marketing, as with all marketing, is that it is not about you, it is about the consumer. As Ryan Mull reminds us, “don’t make the mistake of focusing on what [you] want and what [you] like personally on the internet, and not focusing enough on what the online auto buying users want and need.”

What is important is what consumers think of your site, not what you think.

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