Editor's note: Nearly every dealer has developed a website over the last 10 years, but many still haven't discovered or unleashed the Internet's full potential. Dealer Business Briefing continues to come across sites missing key dealership information and/or useful links, and ones that haven't been updated in ages. Dealers are also still struggling to improve Internet visibility and capture/convert more online leads. This article features a number of ideas Cobalt Group CEO John Holt recently shared with us.
You wouldn't open a new showroom and then neglect to stock it with inventory or hire and train employees to help your customers. Yet many dealers continue to approach the Internet with a semi-or poorly-developed website and little strategy.
"Being good with the Internet is no different than with F&I or even soccer. It takes practice and it takes a plan," says Mr. Holt. Dealers should evaluate where they are on what he calls the "crawl-walk-run" spectrum. Crawling is having the basics in place. Walking and running is where you pick up the pace and use the Internet to more actively help your business. As you read on, think about where your dealership falls - and where you'd like to be.
Website nuts and bolts
Building a website is not a difficult task - just pay a set-up fee and monthly fees to maintain it - but that in itself doesn't accomplish a lot, says Mr. Holt. A good website, he reminds dealers, needs content that's appealing, descriptive, accurate and timely. It must be aesthetically pleasing and include navigation that's intuitive and obvious. Make specific decisions about who you are and how you want to represent yourself. Include inventory information, tell Web visitors where you're located and how they can communicate with you, and indicate if you have multiple franchises. Also make sure you're not sending out negative cues, like advertising old October specials in January. Got all this in place? Great - but you're still crawling.
To move on to walking and running, be sure to throw in specials of all sorts for vehicles, parts and service, says Mr. Holt. Coordinate it with specials you run in the newspaper. "Nothing knocks the socks off a customer like specials for this weekend," he says. Your website should be a "living, breathing representative of your store," he notes.
Marketing and advertising
Unfortunately, many dealerships aren't even crawling yet in this arena because they're not listing their web address (URL) everywhere they advertise. Gone are the days of sticking a URL in the corner of an ad in tiny print; it should be bold and easy to spot, says Mr. Holt. His suggestions: end every radio spot with your URL, and plaster it on every business card, showroom sign, billboard, and license plate holder. "People forget how easy it is to leverage traditional advertising spend," he says.
To start walking, get affiliated with a manufacturer program which forwards customer leads to dealers in the network. Manufacturers have spent a lot of money to advertise their URLs and these programs are usually a free source of leads. Yet many dealers fail to maximize the benefits of this "low hanging fruit," says Mr. Holt.
Next, examine your search engine options. More than 80 percent of people on the Web use search engines to find dealer websites and four - Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and MSN - drive 95 percent of searches, he says. Study dealer websites that come up high on their free search lists (left side of page). Try to boost your dealership's ranking by optimizing your website with popular keywords, he says. This can be complicated since the algorithms keep changing; some dealers are hiring Web companies to assist with continuous optimization.
Ready to run? Consider paid search, which involves bidding on keywords for priority placement among sponsored links on search engine pages, says Mr. Holt (see p.4). In any local market there's also the opportunity to buy impression-based ads (banner and tile ads) which visitors click on, he says. Check out the websites for your local newspaper, chamber of commerce, football team and other local venues. Banner ads can also be purchased through Edmunds .com. Of course, leads can be purchased directly from third-party providers such as Dealix Corp. (a division of The Cobalt Group), Autobytel and AutoUSA.
A lead is a lead whether it's generated from your website or received through your manufacturer or another third-party site, says Mr. Holt. Now it's up to your staff to convert those leads into sales. Response time, responsiveness, and response quality are critical. While that's a whole story for another day, ideally you want to get back to customers within 30 minutes or less these days to be really competitive, he says.
Founded in 1995, The Cobalt Group (www.cobaltgroup.com) is North America's leading provider of automotive retailing solutions. Its exclusive mission is to help automobile dealers and manufacturers leverage online retailing and customer relationship management (CRM) technology to increase their effectiveness and profits and to enhance the car-buying and ownership experience for their customers.