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Promoting your dealership in the 21st century

November 11, 2010

By Tony French

Just for fun, let’s go back in time about 15 years. Let’s say it’s 1995 and you are a typical car dealer. One day your advertising rep calls you and says, "Mr. Dealer, I’ve got great news. I can get your inventory in practically every newspaper in the country. And the commercial you shot last week, I can get that on a network that has an audience of 300 million people.  And the best part, it’s all free."

How many dealers would have jumped on that opportunity? Probably all of them, right?

The interesting aspect of marketing in today’s Internet environment is that this actually is possible. In fact, many of the more progressive dealers are doing just that.

Millions and millions of people search online automotive every month. They are looking for new cars, used cars, cars with specific equipment, dealerships, reviews on vehicles and dealerships, new models, old models, hot rods, off-road vehicles with crazy modifications—they are looking at everything automotive.

Some of these shoppers are enthusiasts, others beginners. Some are knowledgeable and some are just looking to get a good deal. Some know what they’re looking for and others are just browsing.

Some dealers understand this online phenomenon and are using the Internet to gain market share. Others have no clue.

The key to winning in today’s Internet market is to leverage as many online opportunities as possible to get people to find your dealership and inventory. Once they find you, it’s just as important to sell them on your dealership experience.

To begin, let’s start with something that everyone has heard about but few actually understand – SEO. Search Engine Optimization is a moving target, and no one really has the exact recipe. But we know most of the ingredients.

It’s important that dealerships begin to understand SEO because this is the battleground for your customer. If you don’t understand the importance of winning the battle for search, I guarantee that many of your competitors are beginning to understand it, and your monthly numbers will begin to reflect it, if they haven’t already.

Let’s move beyond SEO to some easier, concrete steps that can help you and your dealership gain more exposure (which may actually help in SEO).

Free Sites: There are many automotive portals that will gladly list your inventory for free. For the most part, all it usually takes is for you to let your inventory distribution company (HomenetAutoUpLInkUSA, Dealer Specialties and others) know that you want your inventory sent to all the "no-charge-free" sites. Then practically overnight you’re there.

Once you’re listed, the most important aspect is to make sure that you receive the lead on your pre-owned vehicle. To test this, find one of your cars on a free site (feel free to test and fill out the lead form as if you’re a customer interested in the car. Then see if you receive the lead at the store. If you don’t get the lead, it’s usually because the site has an outdated internet address for your dealership. It’s important to test this because there is no sense in marketing your inventory if you can’t receive the information of the customer who is interested in your vehicle.  

Online Directories: There are more than 1,200 popular search engines, online directories and local search sites, and most of them will list your dealership for free. Submitting, managing, monitoring and updating your dealership’s information and reviews across the Web is time-consuming but very important. For example, if you have the wrong phone number, you may lose an opportunity. The customer may immediately call another dealership. Or your dealership listing may have been claimed by a competitor or spammer, and the phone number and links go to a competitor. So having your dealership information correct on all these sites is very important.

Reputation Management: It is very important to manage your online reputation on the Web. It’s beginning to be so important, there’s actually an acronym for it —ORM, for Online Reputation Management. It’s the equivalent to having your SSI/CSI survey results posted on thousands of sites for everyone to review. But unlike the surveys from your OEM, they aren’t just handed to you to review; you have to spend time and effort finding them on all of these sites. The goal is to have people say nice things about your dealership online, and many progressive dealers are starting to manage the online buzz by engaging people positively and requesting that they write about their experience.

Facebook and other social media sites: There is a huge opportunity cost for not embracing social media and networking. Social media is becoming a mandatory piece of today’s marketing formula. Facebook is a free site that helps you connect with your existing customers. Facebook today has more than 100 million members in the United States and over 300 million people across the world. Progressive dealers are using Facebook to build a dealership-sponsored community that provides interesting content, engaging video of the dealership experience, photos and video of your inventory, articles, reviews and other goodies. Some people believe thatFacebook will change the way people use the Internet.   

YouTube: Visitors to YouTube have increased to more than 300 million a month. It’s the fourth largest site on the Internet, and in August 2008, YouTube became the No. 2 search engine over Yahoo on the Web. (Google is No. 1.) If your dealership doesn’t have video and a YouTube channel, you are missing out on millions of opportunities—you’re not even in the game. As my dad says, "this one’s a no-brainer."

Blogs & Micro Sites: Car dealer blogs and micro sites are the No. 1 SEO tactic being used by progressive dealers today. Content and linking are both key ingredients in accelerating Web search results and increasing lead generation. Dealers need to be setting up their own blogs so they can compete in their local market and increase the traffic to their dealership Web site. Blogs and micro sites are both an aggressive marketing tactic and defense strategy to eliminate their competition from relevant search terms.

All the studies and statistics indicate that the majority of consumers are going online before they visit your dealership. I’m sure there still are people who shop for a car the old-fashioned way: driving around, kicking tires. You might also believe that a majority of your customers didn’t go online because they didn’t come through your Internet department. As a good friend of mine says, "that’s crazy talk."

Sure, a small percentage of your customers are repeat buyers and others just stop in. But if you are banking for the future on that "model," think Tower Records, Blockbuster Video, Olan Mills Portraits and the Polaroid camera. Not that these are exact parallels, but my point is that these companies didn’t realize the power of the Internet until it was too late.

Let’s take a look at Blockbuster Video and compare it to Netflix. First off, Netflix started out as a movie-in-the- mail business, but they named their company "Netflix." Ever wonder why? The reason is because Reed Hasting, the founder and CEO of Netflix, realized the future of movie rental is through the Internet, but the technology didn’t support that model in 1997.

But Hasting knew that one day it would, so he started a business that would build a customer base until technology caught up to his vision. That day is now, and Netflix is positioned perfectly for streaming video rental. If you are a non-believer, just check out their latest stock price. 

My point is not to sell anyone on Netflix, although I really dig their business model and service. What I hope to do is to help people understand that traditional ways of marketing and selling cars are gone the way of the Polaroid camera.  One only has to look to the past to understand the future.

You know the saying, "history is written by the victor."  The question is, will the author be you?

Tony French is the president of Automotive Internet Media Inc., an integrated network of highly specialized consumer Web sites that leverages search engine optimization to drive online traffic. To learn more, visit