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Monday, December 18, 2006

The Impact of Changing Your Dealership Website

Most sales in any company result from only a handful of customer situations. Frequently a prospect is simply dissatisfied with their current situation. At Higher Turnover we seem to get a lot of car dealers calling us because they’re unhappy with their current provider. So what actually happens when a dealership changes their website provider? What are the implications if they just change the look of their dealership site? The simple answer to these two complex questions is that a lot can happen. Let’s take a look at each one:

Changing Your Website Company: Think about it from a search engine perspective. If you decide to change providers, it’s important that you choose a reputable one who understands search engine optimization and marketing. Sometimes your old site may have elements that are favorable to search engine placement, and some elements may hurt you. Knowing the difference is key, and if you don’t know the difference, trust the experts. We have done redesigns recently for clients who really liked their previous design but were just victims of poor customer service. Some of these designs may have looked OK years ago, but 8 or 9 years on the internet is an eternity. I suppose it’s part of someone’s comfort level; if a website has worked in the past they may not be comfortable changing it – they just want to change who manages it. What these dealers typically don’t realize is that the “look” of a website is a small part of how well it performs. I know other industry professionals getting ready to comment on that already, but hear me out. Looks are important as they can project a level of respectability and professionalism, but things such as overall structure can be much more important. Our sites are designed to quickly funnel customers from the homepage, to the cars, down to one car, and ultimately to pick up the phone and call the dealer. Content and structure are most important, and this helps in the search engines as well. Dealers are amazed when we show them how their current site looks to the search engines, and even more amazed if a small change jumps their site up toward the top of the search results.

Changing the Look of Your Dealer Website: I know I just said looks aren’t the most important aspect of a dealer site, but they are definitely important. Radical changes to overall design can sometimes confuse customers that visit frequently, unless you brand your site in a way that makes it instantly recognizable as your own. Design changes from time to time can be good and help keep interest of your customers, much like dynamic content. Look at Google for example. Although their homepage is extremely simple in design, they make subtle changes to their logo from time to time depending on the occasion. If you’ve ever been to Google around the holidays you’ve probably noticed their logo “dressed up” a little with Easter Eggs, Thanksgiving themes, or Christmas trees. This is a good example of subtle changes to keep interest of repeat visitors. The overall look and feel of the page doesn’t change at all. Changes are something that should be taken into account when shopping around for website providers for your dealership. Some companies charge additional fees if you want to add or edit pages on your site down the road. If you think you’re getting a good deal on a website, make sure you really know what you’re paying over the long-term. If you’re thinking of changing providers for your site, be sure to ask the companies to evaluate your current site and determine what the strengths and weaknesses are. Sometimes dealers want to change for the wrong reasons, and as a straightforward company we’ll tell it like it is. If it doesn’t make sense to change things up based on your objectives, we recommend against it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Dealers Responding to Online Leads Faster

Digital Dealer has just released information from there latest survey. It looks like dealers are starting to respond to online leads faster.

I hope this trend continues because online leads are valuable, but you must respond to them quickly before the potential customer moves on to the next dealership.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where is the Auto Marketing Industry Headed?

Several calls and emails over the last week have really got me thinking about where the industry is headed for auto dealer marketing. One word comes to mind for me: saturation. Look at one part of our particular product offerings for example: website solutions for independent dealers. A quick search of dealers in your local area is sure to pop up at least a few horrible websites. Some have been designed by the dealers themselves, and some have been designed by a local company for that dealer. I use the term company loosely, because most of these “companies” are nothing more than a computer and some local kid whose dad knows the dealer. I’m not knocking this situation, because sometimes it does work, but more times than not it ends up hurting the dealership with an unprofessional image. Dealers need to take online marketing as seriously as their offline marketing. Would they trust a 6-year-old with his box of crayons to work up the art for the magazine ad? It’s an extreme example, but a valid one judging from what I see out there.

So basically there are thousands of people in your local area who know how to build you a dealer website, but the important question is do they know how to do it right? Dealers are getting smarter. Some are slower than others, some I would definitely consider hard-headed, but overall they’re becoming more informed about their choices. I believe we’re in a transition phase in this industry. There are so many choices, and some companies are really going to stand out above the others. The market is so saturated with people or companies that claim to be capable. As we reach a critical mass in the marketplace, dealers become more informed and there will be a lot of consolidation taking place.

Taking it to the next level is the natural next step. Website companies may begin to consolidate, some may merge, some may disappear. Why stop there? A lot of companies are already broadening their skill set to help dealers. We’re getting ready to launch an eBay listing manager. We’re starting to offer pay-per-click campaign management and press release services to dealers. We’ve also been approached by several companies to act as resellers of their technology, again, keeping everything under one roof. As a dealer, if you could have one company handle your website, your inventory management, photos, window stickers, lead management/CRM, and several other things, wouldn’t it be better to have that one company instead of 7 separate companies? A one-stop marketing shop of sorts. I had the pleasure recently to speak with Eric Gidney of Next-Level Automotive who has built his business model on this principle. Eric and I actually both worked for Autotrader.com for several years (among other auto industry jobs individually), so to say we know the industry is an understatement. While we at Higher Turnover are broadening our services, we’re still staying focused on web development and applications. Next-Level Automotive is currently taking a more hands-on approach with the dealers in a focused area (Philadelphia, PA). They’ll actually go to the lot, take the photos for the dealers, work with them on print/direct mail campaigns, and generally do some of the things that someone like us isn’t able to do without having 2,000 field reps across the country.

Next-Level Automotive’s existence and the speed at which they’ve grown in the Philly market are perfect examples of where this industry is headed. It's already starting on the local level, and I think it’s a good thing for the dealers.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Importance of Having a Secure Credit Application on your Auto Dealer Site

Most people are aware of the identity theft threat. In case you’re not, here’s a crash-course: Any time you submit information over the internet, it is possible for a third party to intercept that information. This is true for almost any information someone submits, whether it’s ordering flowers online, booking a plane ticket, or applying for financing on an auto dealer website. What can someone do with the information they collect? Well that depends. If the site that is supposed to receive the information has a security certificate (also known as an SSL certificate), there’s not much the “bad people” can do. The SSL actually encrypts whatever is being sent so it’s no use to anyone other than the intended recipient. Anyone with a website can obtain an SSL, and the issuing companies do extensive checks to ensure the person/company purchasing the certificate is legit. Essentially you’re paying for a trusted name that vouches for your own business legitimacy.

We recently ran into an issue with the latest release of Internet Explorer from Microsoft, IE7. Several of our dealers did not use SSL certificates because they only collect information that isn’t sensitive in nature. For a short “credit application” they chose to only ask customers for info such as name, address, email, and phone number. This information is public for most people anyway, so there really wasn’t a need to encrypt it on the website.

With the new IE7 it seems to be more important to secure any contact forms or credit applications, no matter how public the information may be. Not important because you need to protect information that’s probably public anyway, but important because it can actually deter customers from entering their info in the first place. Even with a “shared” SSL certificate which still encrypts info, customers are being told to be extremely cautious. Take a look at a warning screen someone sees now when they go to a page that is encrypted by a shared SSL:

Even if someone isn’t giving up confidential info, it’s pretty strong to see Microsoft telling you that you should leave the page. If you didn’t know the technical specifics of why you were seeing that message, would you enter any information? What if it was a more in-depth application that asked for your Social Security Number? I know I wouldn’t, even if it was a reputable car dealer I’ve done business with in the past.

The solution to this is simple. We recommend all of our customers get an SSL certificate, which we purchase on their behalf and install on the web server. Certificates can be purchased for just a couple hundred dollars through some reputable and trusted companies. Think of it this way: if you get one person to fill out your online credit application and get them financed, will the money you make on the back-end of the deal offset the minimal investment? We leave the choice up to our dealers, but if I were a dealer it would be a no-brainer.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Improve Your Auto Dealership Response to Email Leads

While speaking with auto dealers across the country, I frequently have discussions about the quality of email leads. Many dealers don't like to "waste" time on email leads, because the more serious buyers will pick up the phone and call. While this may be true, email leads should not be ignored. In fact, they should be treated as equally important, because given the right set of tools, a dealer can reduce the time spent responding to customers and become more efficient overall.

Before I get into what tools will help improve response to email leads, I need to point out some very powerful information I ran across from Dealix. The original report can be seen here, but here's the pertinent information. In their study from last year, it was reported that a huge percentage of customers who submit an email inquiry on a dealer website eventually purchase their vehicle from a different dealer. What is a "huge percentage" you ask? Out of roughly 1.16 million leads researched in this study, 56% (644,957) actually converted to a sale. Of those 644,957 sales, an astonishing 92% were sold at another dealership other than the one who got the initial lead. That's right, 9 out of every 10 leads you get are probably going to the store down the street to buy their car. How can you improve the closing ratio at your dealership? First you need to understand why they're going to your competition. According to the study, the biggest reason (other than the customer deciding on a different vehicle model) was the response from the dealership. In fact, 20.4% went to another dealership because the first dealer had poor response to their inquiry, with poor defined as "slow" or not answering the customers questions.

Seems like a simple enough problem to correct, right? So why is it that the problems have gotten worse over the last couple years? Something as simple as answering the shopper's questions dropped from 38.2% in 2004 to 25.9% last year. So only 1 in 4 dealer responses actually answers the customer's questions? That seems like a good place to start improving. I understand that as a dealer your ultimate goal is to get the customer on the lot, because that's where the selling takes place. It's my belief that customers will form a better opinion of the dealer if they're straight-forward and show that they're not trying to beat around the bush. Simply answering their questions will increase the appointment show ratio, which will in turn increase the closing ratio at the sales level. One way to help make a good impression in email responses is by using templates. Basically templates will give you a professional look rather than just a couple lines of text, and they will also have most of the information filled in already so you don't have to sit and type a response from scratch.

The biggest factor (that a dealer can control) in improving your email responses is the time it takes for a response. Imagine a customer walks on your lot and asks you about a Chevy truck parked right up front. Now imagine your salesman looks at the customer and doesn't say a word. The customer would probably go to your competitor, unless they appreciate being ignored. What do you think the customer's response would be if you called them at home 7 hours later? Well this is essentially what's going on with email responses at most dealerships. The average response time for a customer inquiry was 6.5 hours last year. When the customer takes a few minutes out of their day to write to a dealer and inquire about a vehicle for sale, treat this like they've just walked on your lot. The more successful dealerships I've worked with have policies in place such as responding to all emails within an hour. With the back-end of our dealer websites, we've added a tool that will help our dealers do even better. A dealer can set up cell phone text messages for their website leads. When a customer submits an inquiry through the dealer's site, the sales manager, owner, or whoever you set up will be notified instantly by text message that a new lead has arrived. Imagine what that says to a customer when you call them to answer their questions and they're still on your website. You've got them when they're hot, and before they start looking at vehicles on your competitor's lot. Our dealers who use this functionality tell me that most conversations start out with "wow, that was fast".

Improving the quality of your email responses and how fast you actually respond are the two most important things that are within your control that will increase sales at your dealership. They are both practices you can put into place immediately, which means your profits will increase almost immediately as well.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Advertising for Buy Here Pay Here, Rent to Own, and Subprime Finance Dealers

Look at any of the big online advertising sites for auto dealers....Autotrader.com, Cars.com, Automart, etc. If you compare the vehicles advertised on any of these to the vehicles advertised by other media such as magazines, newspaper, storefront signage, you may notice a big difference. Drive down "dealer row" in your hometown and you'll see a million signs for "no credit check", or "everyone is approved". Sometimes you may even see the dealers who aren't trying to sugar-coat it: "buy here pay here". Buy here pay here financing isn't necessarily a bad thing for the customers. Dealers realize there is a need to serve customers with bad credit that couldn't otherwise be financed. Customers need a car, and virtually anyone can get one using BHPH or rent to own finance. Do some research however, and you'll hear what a rip-off BHPH finance is for the customers. In reality though, why should they get the same interest rates as someone who has paid their bills on time for 20 years? Credit scores are based on a lender's risk, so for me a dealer doesn't have to justify high interest rates for someone that is a high risk for default, repos, etc. Because such a large percentage of the American public falls into this Sub-Prime lending category, it makes perfect sense that several dealers market directly to these customers. Look in the print advertising media and you'll see the same things as driving down "dealer row", geared at catching the eye of the car shopper with less than perfect credit.

Since so many dealers use in house financing, BHPH, or rent to own, wouldn't it make sense to advertise cars online the same way they do in the magazines? A shiny BMW for just $49 a week and no credit check is a lot more appealing to bad credit customers than bigger retail prices, extensive credit applications, and the "normal" car dealer look/feel. Why is it then that none of the online players gear anything toward this market segment? Do they think those customers don't have internet access? If so, it's simply not true. Look at the statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau: out of the people over the age of 18 who make between $15000-$20000 a year, 31% use the internet at home, work, or school. Think any of them are car shoppers? You bet. Everyone I've talked to about internet use among sub-prime finance customers has always said those customers just don' t use the internet. Two points on this:

First, 31% of the sample income group above DOES use the internet. Of course it's lower than the higher income population, but think about it like this. Suppose you have 1000 people on your lot with high beacon scores and 1000 with low scores. 310 of those low score people are looking for your cars, and 620 of the higher score people are looking for your cars as well. Would you completely ignore the 310 customers with lower scores? That's the equivalent of ignoring 1 out of every 3 people that step on your lot. By doing that you may make money on the 620 ups, but you'll never make money on those 310 others.

The second point is this: Do you really know what a sub-prime finance customer is? You're probably thinking stereotypically as you read this: "bad work history, doesn't care about bills, and low paying job". Of course you'll have those, but the truth is that on a national scale, a majority of these customers aren't like that at all. The typical customer is truly an example of "bad things happen to good people". Two of the top reasons for damaged credit are divorce or some sort of unplanned medical event. In reality these customers have had steady jobs for several years and average income might surprise you.

So this brings us back to the original question: wouldn't it make sense to advertise cars online the same way you do in the magazines? None of the major online classifieds like Autotrader.com or Cars.com offer such services. Everything is shown to the customers as either retail or MSRP. Since these are large corporations, adding this functionality is nearly impossible given the scope, let alone convincing them it's worthwhile. For this reason it's left up to you the dealer to market weekly or monthly pricing on a smaller level. Our websites and administrative back-end have recently had this functionality added. We feel it's the dealers choice in how they want to market their inventory. If some cars are better off with retail prices, list those. If some are more appealing with weekly or monthly payments, why turn potential customers away with retail pricing? We've even developed a product that allows traditional dealerships to keep BHPH inventory completely separate from retail units and not even have them on the same website. Everyone has their thoughts on the subject. As online marketing consultants, for us it makes the most sense to maximize the efficiency of advertising, and that means not lumping all inventory into one category, even if it's all on one lot.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Google Base to Replace Auto Classifieds?

Will Google Base end up replacing Auto Classifieds?

Google Base is an online repository that allows anyone to categorize content. It is a free service that allows anyone to upload content. All content contains attributes that further categorize the content so that users have the ability to search Google Base content for specific products, services or information. One of the categories inside Google Base is autos.

Since it's a free service, anyone can upload their vehicle contents along with a picture of the vehicle and have it searchable. You might be wondering why will Google Base be able to overtake the big online classifieds such as Cars.com, Autotrader.com, AutoMart.com, AutoExtra.com etc..? Because Google is a company that makes money off of selling ads based on searches. Think of the possibilities that Google has with Google Base to integrate the vast online repository of information with it's other services?

How about if someone searches for Toyota's for sale in the Dallas, TX local market. Google can bring up a map of the local zip code in addition to a list of Toyota's for sale that are listed in Google Base and add the locations of those vehicles to the map. How about if Google integrates the Google Base content with the Search Engine? If you have used Google frequently, you will notice the top placement of some products when you search on certain products. This happens a lot when you are performing a local search. Wouldn't it be great, as a dealer, to have your inventory appear at the top of a search when someone searches for a particular vehicle in your area on Google? This power could enable Google to start to overtake the likes of AutoTrader.com and Cars.com since they cannot offer the same benefit to dealers. Since Google is the top Search Engine, and since ~80% of car buyers perform a search online before a purchase, one starts to understand the potential power of Google Base.

Google Base accepts datafeeds, and is one of the locations that we send dealers data to everyday. This is an excellent opportunity for car dealers to cut out the middle man for leads and plug into the ever growning online vehicle search.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Does Autotrader.com or Cars.com Work Better For Dealers, or Traderonline?

I'm asked at least once a week by a dealer what third party site will bring them the most customers. Is Auto Trader or Cars.com better? Here's a little insight into each company and the feedback I've received from dealers that use each.

My first point of information, and probably the most confusing thing to most dealers is that Auto Trader magazines are not the same company as Autotrader.com (at least at the present time, but soon there will be some changes with the business relationship between the two). Cox Communications owns half of Autotrader.com and also half of Trader Publishing (Auto Trader Magazines). Each is treated as a separate company, and therefore compete against each other for marketshare. Autotrader.com got their name from the widely recognized brand of magazines in 1999 when the online auto advertising industry was really getting started. There are even business relationships between the two such as magazine ads automatically showing on Autotrader.com as very basic listings. A couple of years ago Trader started Automart.com and Autoextra.com because while they had capitalized on specialty markets, they had essentially missed the boat on the automotive sector of online advertising. While Autoextra.com and Automart.com have significantly lower traffic numbers than Autotrader.com or Cars.com, I'll include them in this cross-analysis because their market penetration is significant with the print publications.

Autotrader.com: Self described as the "Biggest, Best Used Car Site on the Planet", Autotrader.com is definitely the most widely recognized site out there. Their marketing campaign for 2006 was somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million and expected to make 1 Billion impressions. If you're looking for the most shoppers, this is where you want to be. Autotrader.com boasts over 2 million vehicles for sale at any given time, and recent traffic reports show about 12 million visitors per month to the site. Consistently ranked at the top of the JD Power Reports for customer recognition and dealer satisfaction. An impressive resume indeed. With all this comes some downsides from the dealer point of view. Such a big site means your cars are in the mix with literally millions of others. Autotrader.com is geared toward driving local buyers to your lot, so this helps, but if you search for a vehicle in your local area you'll notice that there are still a lot of competitors you're going up against. The other issue with Autotrader.com is price. If you want to be with the "biggest, best" site, you're going to have to pay for it. Overall dealer impression from the people I've spoken with: a great site that you have to use to stay competitive, but pricing makes it hard to diversify your advertising money.

Cars.com: Not as many vehicles for sale, not as many dealers, not as highly regarded, but worthwhile for sure. As I pointed out in the previous paragraph, not having so many cars for sale or competitors can be a good thing for the people that use the site. Cars.com is really making a run at Autotrader.com, upping their own advertising campaign significantly. They're aligned (and owned) by several major newspaper companies. They actually got their start in response to declining newspaper classified revenue. This association with the local papers and websites through co-branding, etc. really drives local buyers to the site much like Autotrader.com has done. The major advantage of Cars.com is the price. They have many options just like Autotrader.com has, but the price is typically about 1/2 to 1/3 the price of Autotrader.com. A good bargain, but one thing I've really noticed in speaking with dealers is that Cars.com seems to do very well in some markets (Philadelphia for example) and not well at all in others.

Traderonline: The Trader websites of Automart.com and Autoextra.com have similar advantages as Cars.com. Price seems to be the major advantage. Trader knows they're far behind Autotrader.com and Cars.com as far as features and traffic, so it makes sense pricing is lower. They also seem to be using a business model to keep other arms of the company alive and well (i.e. Auto Trader, Auto Mart and Auto Extra magazines), so they have programs that are comprehensive across several media. This provides advertisers with a great opportunity to diversify their advertising for a low cost, even though it's all within the same company. What most dealers have told me is that the Trader sites don't come close to Autotrader.com or Cars.com in terms of leads/sales, but the pricing structure makes it an appealing addition to other advertising campaigns.

The bottom line: Talk to 100 dealers and you'll get 100 different answers as to which online site is best and why. These are just some common statements I hear on a daily basis. Research shows that most car shoppers visit both Autotrader.com and Cars.com, and some visit the Trader sites. There are going to be shoppers on each site that don't visit the others, so it all comes down to advertising reach.
The old saying seems to hold true: you have to spend money to make money, and and it seems like the more you spend, the more you'll sell. If you can afford it, you'll get the best return by diversifying your advertising money. If not, determine which is best for your particular market, what's going to give you the most bang for your buck, and which one you think will really bring you the most local/regional customers.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Do Customers actually buy the vehicles that they search for?

Digital Dealer published this article that publishes some interesting statistics around if customers actually buy the vehicles that they search for. It looks like the data that was collected by NADAguides.com shows that the customers do purchase the vehicles that they search for. This leads to some interesting opportunities for dealers that can get their hands on vehicle search data. Especially if that search data is local data. Vehicle trends happen, and is talked about in the article about hybrids and how the number of searches are increasing because of high gas prices.

Understanding what vehicles are being searched for in the major search engines is valuable data for dealers.

Best Features for Your Auto Dealer Website

One thing I've realized recently about website design in the automotive industry is that there seem to be an almost unlimited number of features available. If someone thinks it will benefit a car dealer, it will be made. Unfortunately, I've noticed that some of these features are practically force-fed to the dealers gathering info on the best features for their own website design. How many times have you been to an auto dealer site and as soon as you pull up the home page you hear a virtual "person" talking to you? My first instinct is a frantic "where is the button to stop this make-believe man or woman from interrupting my search?". Similar to flash intro pages on sites. It's been said that the "skip intro" button is the most widely used across those sites.

If you're just getting started shopping around for a web design company to handle your car dealer site you've probably realized one thing already. There are a ton of companies out there. Several major players exist in the market, and even more smaller players. Just look at these search results on MSN and you'll see there are (at the time of this post) over 161,000 results for "independent auto dealer websites). Good, bad, and everything in between. Most offer the core features you'll need for your site, and then each company seems to have their own "secondary" products that are available.

My advice to anyone looking for decent web design, especially for an auto dealer website, is to focus on the features you need. I'm a believer in keeping things simple; if it works, don't change it. There are of course things that can increase dealership profits on the online side of things, just make sure if you're spending money on these things that they actually provide a significant return on your investment.

It's always worthwhile to ask the companies you check out how much customization they're willing to do. If they have features in their packages that you just don't see yourself using, ask for a price without those features. If you're looking for cheap web design, my advice is to shop around, narrow it down to 2-3 companies that you're confident can handle your account, and see what each is willing to do to earn your business. No great secrets here, just like if you were buying a car you'd shop a few dealerships and not spend extra money on a convertible when you don't like the sun.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Selling Vehicles on eBay

I recently read a press release that eBay just had their 2 millionth successful auction, again connecting an automotive buyer with a dealership. Considering neither the buyer or the seller would have normally even known about each other, this is yet another piece of evidence of where the industry is headed. 2 million vehicles sold is a powerful number. Add in the millions each year sold by the other big players like Autotrader.com, Cars.com, etc. and you just can't ignore the internet. I talk to several dealers every day who are anti-internet. Call them traditionalists. Magazines and newspapers aren't going away, although they are losing marketshare at a fast pace. These traditional dealers who haven't embraced the internet will continue to sell cars as well, but the question in my mind is not "if" they start migrating online, but "when" they will. If any dealer plans on being successful beyond the next few years, I'd say they should start thinking about buying a computer. There are internet sites for different types of sales. Some major differences you should know about:

eBay says it themselves on their site. It's meant to be a wholesale marketplace. They recommend using their site for vehicles that a dealer would normally take to auction or wholesale. With the few cars I've sold through eBay I've noticed that most of the people are looking for a deal and do not want to pay retail for the vehicles. Some cars I've still managed to make money on, while others I've taken quite a hit. I recommend following eBay's own recommendations, because when you put a car up for auction, it's a legally binding contract and you have to sell it once it hits your reserve.

Autotrader.com and Cars.com are more retail-oriented. On these sites you can expect customers who are willing to pay retail for your vehicles. There is more opportunity to practice your traditional car-dealer tactics....sales and negotiation...whereas auction sites are more of a "put it up, let the car sell itself, and get what you can get" type mentality.

The bottom line is that there are sites out there for your vehicles, however you want to sell them. Move them quick for wholesale or hang onto them a little longer for more money. Each site has its own style, traffic numbers, and ultimately sales. Prior to trying any out, make sure you talk with some other dealers to see what seems to work best for the type of vehicles you have and your particular area. The biggest complaint I do hear from dealers that use heavy online advertising is that they are required to enter the same vehicles on multiple sites. If you have a website provider for your dealership it's worthwhile to ask about inventory feeds. This will eliminate double and triple-entry, and save you a lot of time.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Recent Digital Dealer survey on automotive websites and SEO/SEM

I thought this survey was pretty interesting by Digital Dealer. 40% do not do any Search Engine Marketing. That is a lot of car dealers that are not taking advantage of search engines. Search Engine Optimization will help in terms of getting the website indexed into the Search Engine but it auto dealers should be marketing towards the local online customers. Those will be people in your region that are shopping for vehicles online. That is the target customer and your search engine ads can be shown just to a region that you choose. This can help save many on the advertising, while still specifically targeting potential buyers.

Here is a link to the article about how satisfied car dealers are with their search engine marketing.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Things to Consider When Developing Your Auto Dealer Website

I ran across an interesting article today that really hits home for car dealers developing a website. Many car dealers are concerned primarily with having the best site on the internet. Unfortunately (whether they realize it or not) they're putting ego and competition before selling cars. There are countless possibilities of what features to include on a dealership website, but remember your focus should be on the customers, not one-upping the dealer down the street. Customers like and dislike certain features, and the most important thing is that your site is useful and effective at promoting your inventory. Be sure to check out the article. A small difference in web design (or even the web design company for that matter) can make a huge difference in how successful your business is.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

AutoTrader.com Program Offered for Smaller Dealers to Sell Cars on the Internet

AutoTrader.com Program Offered for Smaller Dealers to Sell Cars on the Internet

When someone mentions selling cars on the internet one company comes to mind for most people: AutoTrader.com. They are the 800 pound gorilla out there, and there’s a reason for it: because it works. Most auto dealers are aware of AutoTrader.com subscription products. They offer packages where a dealer will pay a monthly charge to get priority placement of vehicles and a set of other bells and whistles that help them to sell more cars on the internet. With the subscription deal they can add, modify, and delete vehicles at will, so they always know what you’re paying and they can list their entire inventory. AutoTrader.com subscription packages are by far the best and most cost-effective way to go if you’re interested in selling cars online.

For some dealers, there is another product offered by AutoTrader.com that may fit their needs better. They also offer “Select Ads”, which in a nutshell is a pay-per-listing style of advertising that seems to be a good choice for two types of dealers. It may be a better choice for someone who is a smaller independent dealer without a lot of vehicles, and it may also be a good choice for larger dealers that want to test the waters before jumping in. In either case, it gives the dealer an opportunity to see how well AutoTrader.com really works to help sell more cars. Ads can be purchased in blocks, and even if you were to buy a block of 15 ads you would have 60 days to use them. Below are a few recommendations for dealers considering Select Ads with AutoTrader.com.

If it’s your first time using Select Ads, don’t go with the mentality that you know what is going to sell best on AutoTrader.com and only get one or two ads. I would recommend buying a block of 10 ads since they don’t have to be used all at once. Use them on different types of vehicles. Yes, oddball vehicles will do OK on AutoTrader.com, but most shoppers are actually looking for the vehicles you consider “ordinary”. I recommend listing a sample of what you have on the lot instead of just one type of vehicle. By listing 10 vehicles it will give you a better idea of what’s going to sell, therefore you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket. It will give you a better idea of how the site works to sell your cars online, not just how the site works to sell one car online.
Use the Showcase Ads. AutoTrader.com offers Standard, Custom, and Showcase Ads. The standard are very basic ads, and the old adage holds true: you get what you pay for. Standard ads may sell a car or two, but will be a waste of money as far as value is concerned. If you’re serious about selling cars online, the Showcase Ads (best Select Ads offered) are the way to go. They give you more photos per vehicle, better visibility, and generate more interest for the customers. Not only will it generate more customers walking through your door, but they will be further along in the buying process than traditional customers.
Don’t expect every vehicle to fly off the lot in one day. Although AutoTrader.com is much more cost effective than traditional advertising (lower cost per lead), it is still advertising.

Work with your AutoTrader.com sales rep. They have access to all kinds of reports that will tell you which vehicles are currently doing the best in your area, nationwide, etc. This information will help you make the most of your advertising and ultimately sell more vehicles online. They are very knowledgeable and want to see you succeed. If you succeed, you see the value, you buy more ads, and they get paid more commission. Everybody is happy.

I hope this is helpful to any auto dealers considering online advertising. The phone number is listed on their website for the Select Ad department is listed as 1-888-895-3026.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Internet advertising compared to traditional media for selling vehicles

You’ve probably been hearing it for years: auto advertising is making a shift from traditional media toward online media. Every year the J.D. Power Report shows percentages of shoppers using the internet to find their vehicle steadily increasing, and the most common traditional advertising (magazines and newspapers) have decreased. It’s no surprise for me. I mean, as a consumer if I need something the first place I go is online. It’s quick, easy to find what I’m looking for, and it saves me the time I would normally spend driving around all day to get it. There are three main advantages to companies advertising online with their own websites: exposure/reach, cost, and the ability to collect data.

Exposure/Reach: The internet is the best of both worlds. It enables a dealer to reach customers they wouldn’t normally reach in addition to their local customers, something a local magazine can’t do. Obviously a dealer’s bread and butter is their local customers. The purpose of advertising in general is to broaden reach – to make those customers who don’t drive by your lot every day aware that you exist, and that you have vehicles for sale they may need. The internet is not something that should be a standalone marketing tool to only reach long-distance buyers. It’s simply a tool that effectively promotes your dealership to buyers who may not know you exist, and long-distance buyers are just an added benefit. Your own website also gives you exposure to your customers 24/7. Many people who buy cars do their shopping from the comfort of their home when your lot is closed. The internet is like having a salesperson working for you even when you’re not there.

Cost: The cost for advertising on the internet is far cheaper than newspapers or magazines too. Consider newspapers. Let's say you use a newspaper that has a circulation of 300,000. Statistics show that only 7% of readers are looking for used vehicles. That drops your prospects down to only 21,000 right off the bat. Say you pay $150 for one basic black and white text ad. Many times the ads only run for a day, so you have to hope the people looking at the paper that one day are looking for that one car. Having your own website means having all your vehicles out there, running until they sell, multiple photos, and nearly 100% of visitors to your website are looking to purchase a vehicle. To use the old fishing analogy, it's like having many more lines in the water with better bait in an area you know the fish are swimming. Common sense should tell you that it's a better way to advertise, but your own website being cheaper makes it a no-brainer. If you had 30 vehicles and paid $150 a month for your website, it works out to less than 17 cents per vehicle per day compared to the $150 newspaper ad. Is that right? You bet.

Collecting Data: The other major advantage internet advertising has over traditional advertising is trackability. With a reputable website company dealers have a tremendous amount of data at their fingertips. Higher Turnover for example tracks how customers find the dealers website and provides a constantly updated return on investment calculation for the dealer. If a dealer was spending more on magazine ads than on third party internet sites like Autotrader.com but was receiving more sales from the internet sites, as a business owner it would make sense to spend more where it's going to yield a better return. I understand that most dealers are busy and focus on selling the cars, but there are two sides to owning a business: income and expenses. Too often the dealers get tunnel vision and only see the income side. I have been in the online automotive marketing field for several years, and I am amazed at how little dealers do with their data. Aside from streamlining expenses, the data can be used for other things such as marketing or cross-selling. If a customer visits your website and inquires about a car, say a 2001 Porsche, wouldn't it be valuable to you to know they were also looking at a 2003 BMW?

To summarize, the internet is a growing tool for auto dealers. Because it's so new to some people, they don't realize the full potential it provides. It can help you as a dealer to reach more buyers, cut your costs, and gather valuable information about your customers. Sales is a numbers game, and by taking advantage of companies like Higher Turnover that essentially hold your hand through the online process you will be amazed at what a small shift in advertising can accomplish.

Search Engine Optimization - Internal Techniques

To optimize for search engines, there are both internal and external techniques. Internal techniques are what you can do to your website and each individual page to optimize for search. External techniques are what you can do outside of your website to increase your results in search engines.

This entry I am going to focus on the internal techniques. The following list will explain the most important aspects and considerations that you must be aware of for your website to be properly optimized for search engines. There is one other tidbit about search engines, the big three Google, Yahoo and MSN all use different algorithms to calculate the importance of a page and thus the current ranking of the page. Since Google has the #1 market position at the moment, most people focus on what works well for Google.

1. Page Title - Each page must have an accurate, descriptive, and unique page title. This by far is one of the most important factors that search engines consider. The length of the title should not be more than 30-50 characters and must contain the keywords that you are trying to target. For Instance, if you want to attract buyers of used cars in Miami, FL, your title should be something like "Used Cars in Miami, FL - MyBusiness Name 1800-111-1111". This will place your targeted keywords in the earliest part of the title, while keeping your business name and phone number in the title. This will help with each listing on a search engine.

Research Must be done for each page's keywords. You must identify the targeted users of each page and then research the most common keyword phrases that are search for in the search engines. This will give you a list of keywords that you should use in the page title.

2. Keyword Density - After putting the correct keywords in the Page Title, you must concentrate on the placement of the keywords in the body of the webpage. Search Engines will "read" your webpages and count the number of words that are used, and the font used for those words. Usually if use use the H1, H2, or H3 tag in HTML (heading tags, which make the font bigger) it means that those words are important to the page. The frequency of words is also important to understand the importance of a page. The more frequently (but not overused) a word or phrase is used, the more important it must be.

In short, use the research that was used for the Page Title for your keywords, and use them to create the copy for your page. Use the important keywords more frequently and highlight those keywords if it makes sense. There are tools to give your reports about your keyword density of each page. I have a list of excellent SEO tools to help you out on the right hand side of the blog.

3. Site Map - Internal Links - Site Structure. The site structure of your website must include the correct internal links and a site map. The site map will help the search engine find all of the website pages, and will also help increase your internal links. Internal links should have appropriate and targeted anchor text (the text that is a hyperlink). Search Engines use that anchor text to help determine each page's important content. Internal links/Site Maps will help increase your link count to all of the individual pages in your website structure. The Search Engine's view each page as it's own separate entity and not part of a structure. So increasing the number of links to each page (without overdoing it, which SE's can figure out) will increase the importance of each page in your website according to the search engine.

4. Don't Over Optimize - This last item is important so that you are not doing too much work and actually hurting your placement. The search engine companies have realized that people are understanding the SE algorithms and taking advantage of the algorithm while making the actual content of the webpage useless. This has led to the SE companies to update the algorithm to penalize pages for overoptimization. In the end, make sure the copy on the webpage is human readable and makes sense for the user. The content must be useful to the user, and not just a bunch of keywords. Other techniques that people have used, like adding a bunch of keywords in a font color that matches the background color will be penalized as well. The goal was to try and have the keywords read by the search engine crawlers, but not users. A goal directly targeted at increasing the search engine ranking of the page.

These are probably the top 4 items that are most important for internal search engine optimization. I will go over the external techniques in the next post.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Interesting Pay-Per-Call information

I came across this article about pay-per-call through one of my RSS feeds. The article contains valuable information from a company that has been using pay-per-click for over a year now. It provides some good information about what information to add to your pay-per-click ad and some lessons learned.

I think that pay-per-click will become more and more popular among certain industries. Since a lot of businesses still require a phone conversation of some sort, it will be important to use this technique.

It looks like the minimum cost per click is $2 on some sites, it is important to make sure your ad qualifies the person before they call. Once the customer makes the call, it will cost you, no matter how long the call lasts.

Take a look at the article

Here is another article about pay-per-call advertising

Ingenio is one such place to setup your pay-per-call campaign on AOL.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Introduction to Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing

One of the most important aspects of running a website is to optimize your website for the search engines. Most people use search engines to find websites that are relevant to what they are looking for. Aside from the major online auto directories like AutoTrader.com and Cars.com, most new traffic to your website will come through search engines.

In regards to vehicles, people will usually search for cars or dealerships in a local area. This is important because as a business owner running a website, you want your website to show up on the first page of the major search engines when a user is searching for vehicles in a certain region. It is important to understand what the most popular searches are going to be, so that you can optimize your website for those search keywords. This will help your placement in the search engines results, which in turn creates a lot more visitors, which will generate more leads and hopefully more sales.

So what is Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimizaton (SEO)? SEO is the tasks that are necessary to optimize your website for the target keywords. Search Engines have things called spiders or crawlers which are little programs that visit the whole internet and read what current websites are available online. These spiders follow all of the hyperlinks on a page. That information is stored in the Search Engine database, and is used for all of the searches that are performed. As you can see, the links are very important to search engines. Some of the major search engines, such as Google, count all of the links that are pointing to you (in-bound links) and give you a score based upon those links along with some other algorithm calculations and give you a score. The most popular score is the Google Pagerank which scores a each site from 0-10. 10 being the highest, and 0 the lowest. most websites are in the 1-4 range.

I found this article about Small Business Local online marketing which is a good overview about the power of SEO and local search Market Local Search Online

Over the next couple of posts, I will go over the specific techniques that will help websites increase their page ranking. These techniques will include what needs to be added to your web pages, what you need to do to build your incoming links, and which online directories you should register with. All of these tasks will take a fair amount of time but will pay off in the end as the traffic to your website increases!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Auto Dealer Websites

This blog will examine how auto dealerships can effectively use the web to increase leads and sales. From the basics of starting a website with inventory management, to keeping track of leads, website visitors and SEO (Search Engine Optimization). An auto dealer must have an online presence in today's car buying experience. More than ever consumers are going to the web to do research about the cars that they are interested in, and also visiting potential dealers websites to view cars that are in inventory. This is all done before the auto dealer has had a chance to know about the potential customer.

It is very important to have an easy to use website to allow your customers to research what they are interested in buying. Posting your inventory on the web does not have to be a chore. Batch uploading and other feeds are available to increase the efficiency of keeping your inventory online in real time. Once the inventory is online, it can be sent to other lead generation sources, such as Autotrader.com, cars.com, oldcartrader.com. No more duplicate entry of vehicles onto each site. For Instance, Higherturnover allows you to choose what third party sites you want to send your inventory to, and we will send your real time inventory to each site every night for you.

Once you have a website, and are updating your inventory it doesn't stop there. Your website needs to be included in all of your marketing materials. Both online and offline marketing is important. The more people visit your site, the better it will perform and the better search engine placement you will see. The goal is to have a really high search engine ranking so that your site will be shown on the first page of relevant search results of the big three search engines: Google, Yahoo and MSN. This is like free advertising and marketing. It takes work to get these high rankings, but this is what this blog is all about. To help the automobile dealers compete online.