As the chief marketing officer for MileOne Automotive, David Metter understands the challenges dealerships face in outpacing their competitors online — and why they so often fall short. The mistakes they make, he said, often carry over from their traditional media programs.

“You really can’t own a market unless you have a good foundation of taking care of your own customers and making sure they come back to you,” Metter said. “I’ve seen a number of dealerships try to do this in the past, and they failed every time. They’re always looking to the new customer, and they forget about their old customer.

“At some point, you’re going to run out of consumers,” he said. “The foundation for owning your market really comes back to serving the customers that already know you and like you – and building from that foundation.”

Begin at the Beginning

Ralph Ebersole, automotive consultant at agrees. Before attempting to take an aggressive stance online, he recommends dealers first identity their competitive strengths and map out an internet strategy consistent with the store’s culture and customer base. Ninety-two percent of Americans with web access use the internet as part of their shopping process when buying a car (1), raising the program’s visibility and potential for risk if not properly implemented.

Once that baseline is established, Ebersole suggested dealers identify the appropriate tactics to achieve their goals and document the required processes. Core components to consider include:

  • Your store’s website. While your physical dealership can’t operate around-the-clock, your virtual showroom remains open 24/7. An effective site engages shoppers by connecting them with your inventory and promoting the value of buying from your store. Ideally, Ebersole said, it also is designed for both standard computers and mobile internet devices.

Metter agreed. “It’s of the greatest importance because everything points back to that. Even when you’re on inventory listing sites, there’s always a link for the customer to refer back to the (dealership) website,” he said. “You want to make sure that your pricing is consistent, you want to make sure that your messaging is consistent so the customer has confidence in what you’ve got out in the marketplace. A consumer is going to validate whatever they saw.”

Metter added, “We have to have great conversion points within our sites but also have great information.”

  • Automotive shopping sites. Advertising on independent sites such as allows you to showcase your inventory among ready-to-buy shoppers and market your dealership. Consumers surveyed by J.D. Power and Associates routinely rank these sites as the most useful, citing the one-stop availability of listings, objective research and shopping tools.

“Internet car buyers frequently cross-shop between new and used, so be sure to include every vehicle you have available,” Ebersole said. “You’ll also want to fully merchandise each car with descriptive sell copy, multiple pictures, competitive pricing and video. Providing this information helps prospects form an attachment with the car and encourages them to take the next step toward a purchase.”

  • Third-party leads. If you want to drive new-car sales at your store, purchasing leads can quickly connect you with in-market shoppers. So that you’re not overloaded – or underwhelmed – Ebersole recommends working with your vendor to define the optimal territory and specify the makes you want to sell. Eliminate zip codes that aren’t likely to yield buyers – whether because of distance or a more entrenched competitor – and popular, hard-to-come-by vehicles.

“Your focus needs to be on equipping your salespeople with leads they can close and making available the resources they need to succeed,” Ebersole said. “That may mean smoothing delivery so you receive a consistent flow of leads throughout the month or bringing on additional staff to handle the volume.”

  • Display advertising. To complement and extend the reach of your listings, Ebersole suggests display ads. These placements allow you to draw attention to your new- and used-car specials and brand your dealership. For maximum effect, write compelling copy that motivates shoppers to contact you for more information and configure your ads to factor in the buyer’s search criteria when displaying inventory-level matches. To take your program to the next level, Ebersole recommends banner positions to conquest competing stores and competitive makes.
  • SEO/SEM. To drive additional traffic to your website, Ebersole said you may want to invest in search. Properly managed, search engine optimization projects and search engine marketing campaigns raise the prominence of links to your site on search engine results pages. These programs should complement rather than replace other components of your online strategy (e.g., shopping sites and third-party leads), however.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he said. “Because car buyers arrive at your site from multiple paths, you want a presence on each one to maximize your reach.”

  • Behavioral targeting. Advertising networks, Metter said, also play a role in your online strategy. Knowing your prospects’ surfing history and understanding how to act on it separates you from the pack by allowing you to present them with timely, relevant information.

“Anytime that you can resurface in front of a customer based on their footsteps is a pretty ingenious thing,” Metter said. “We sometimes want to be put in front of people all the time. You try to do that in traditional media, you’re always dependent on the customer turning on the TV – on that specific channel at that time. With behavioral targeting, you don’t have those restraints. You’re basically playing along with the consumer, and that’s a good thing.”

  • Social media. To drive additional exposure for your store, consider a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These sites allow you to engage with customers and prospects outside the showroom and help to keep you top of mind when they’re ready to purchase. To avoid sounding like a commercial, Ebersole suggests complementing inventory posts with other industry- and community-related information your fans might find useful. Topics range from new product developments to vehicle comparisons and reviews, special incentives and local events (e.g., car shows, SCCA rallies and swap meets).

Button Down Your Sales Processes

With internet advertising, you drive traffic to your store in five ways: email, phone calls, online chat, clicks to your store’s website and walk-in visits. Position yourself to win the sale by consistently using these channels to answer shoppers’ questions, Ebersole said, build rapport and sell your store.

“Ongoing follow-up also is critical,” Ebersole added. “If you want to move the metal, stay with shoppers until they purchase. Stores with the highest closing rates continue to communicate with customers 30, 60 and 90 days – and beyond – from the point of first contact.”

Measure, Fine-Tune, Repeat

How do you know if your strategy is working? Reporting tools allow you to gauge the impact of your program on traffic and sales, quantifying the results your program delivers and allowing you to identify areas for improvement. Ebersole recommends regularly reviewing these tools, tracking progress on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis.

“We work in a real-time business, one that doesn’t allow you to ‘set it and forget it,'” Ebersole said. “You have to take a hands-on approach and continuously watch the data. Otherwise, you’re guessing what to do when problems arise and leaving money on the table when campaigns aren’t optimized.”

Don’t Forget Your Offline Channels

Although including traditional media in your plan may seem counterintuitive, Ebersole cautioned against overlooking it. In fact, one media study found that two-thirds of shoppers were led to the internet from dealership signage and the store’s broadcast and print ads. Prominently featuring your website URL in all promotional materials helps your customers and prospects make the connection and integrates your marketing initiatives.

“The more fishing lines you cast, the more fish you’re going to catch,” Ebersole said. “You have to give consumers more opportunities to find you.”

1 Capgemini Cars Online 08/09