Driving Auto Sales with Digital Tools

Car experts share their best tips for bringing customers to the lot.

Connecting with customers is both an art and a science and dealerships are under pressure to balance both while adapting to a rapidly changing marketplace. The days when TV commercials, radio, and print ads were enough to bring customers to a dealership are effectively over. To connect with customers, car dealers have a bevy of channels to choose from, such as websites with live chat, mobile marketing, pay-per-click advertising, and ratings and review sites.

No single channel provides a silver bullet solution though. The key for finding success in the online world isn't only finding the right platforms; it's also delivering the right messages at the right time, according to dealers and auto experts who shared lessons from their experiences.

MN-based Friendly Chevrolet is one such dealership that is pouring most of its marketing budget into multiple digital platforms to advertise its new and pre-owned vehicles. "So much of what people do is digital these days, and so the majority of our budget goes toward SEO and SEM and only about 10 percent of it is spent on traditional advertising," says Internet Sales Manager Margie Martin. "We'll often run a TV commercial in the last two weeks of the month, but we haven't been on the radio for months."

In addition to speaking with customers at the dealership, salespeople engage customers through live chat and SMS messaging and its website is mobile responsive. On the backend, the company analyzes the behavior of website visitors via digital analytics company Outsell to keep track of which vehicles are driving the most interest. And while she declined to share the specific rate, the company is also seeing growing engagement rates through pre-roll ads that it runs on YouTube, according to Martin.

But it's important not to get caught up in adopting the latest technology just for the sake of having it. "The biggest thing is the experience and whether customers can depend on us," Martin notes. "You might not have the lowest prices or the fanciest ads, but if you show that you know your product and give people the information they want, when they want it, that'll make a bigger impact."

Kerri Wise, director of dealer insights at car-shopping site Edmunds.com, agrees that dealerships must have a digital strategy for engaging customers. "The Internet is the new car lot and we encourage dealerships to use a variety of digital tools to engage their customers on it," Wise says.

Mobile websites are often the first place where a customer will learn about a dealership and other businesses, so it is imperative that companies have mobile-responsive sites that are easy for customers to navigate. "We've seen a 40 percent increase year-over-year in people visiting us through mobile sites," Wise notes. "And dealerships that don't have a mobile-responsive site risk losing customers who will quickly move on."

Additionally, customers are increasingly sending questions to salespeople via text rather than calling or sending emails, according to Wise. Edmunds.com invested in texting services by acquiring the startup CarCode last month, which offers a free texting service for car shoppers and dealers. CarCode enables car dealers to receive and respond to consumers' questions and comments through texts from their mobile devices. Dealers can attach clips of requested vehicles to the text messages and price certificates to let the consumer know they will honor the Edmunds.com pricing.

The text conversation between the dealer and customer is automatically sent to the dealership's CRM system, making it easier for the dealership to collect consumer data and generate leads. Delivering messages to customers based on their location is another useful tool, remarks Wise.

"We're seeing dealerships have success with sending special price offers to customers who are near a dealership who have downloaded the dealer's app and can buy the car at that rate if they come in now," Wise says. "If they've gone as far as downloading the app, chances are they're in the market for a car and just need that extra push."

Even when a company has a national brand presence, like car maintenance provider Jiffy Lube, it needs to ensure that the company is connecting with customers at a local level. Jiffy Lube's chain of more than 2,000 businesses across the U.S. offers oil changes and other automotive services. But when it came to reaching customers in local areas, the company realized that generic coupons were no longer effective.

"We had a basic digital strategy and we needed to upgrade it to better reach our customers and stand out from our competitors," explains Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Lack. Last year, Jiffy Lube turned to digital marketing agency Sq1 for help revamping its campaigns.

Sq1 created a digital coupon portal that enabled franchise owners to customize the messaging and value of the coupon offers and align them with the local competitive market. The digital agency also created segmented messages based on shopper data from Jiffy Lube's CRM database and a dynamic pricing structure for the brand's digital media, which enabled Jiffy Lube to bid higher on ad placements for customers identified as being more likely to convert. In addition, the agency made sure that the coupons were prominently displayed on mobile sites and easy to download.

Within a few weeks after launching the new campaign, Jiffy Lube saw a 557 percent increase in the number of coupon redemptions in local markets, a more than 24 percent increase in click-through rate, and a more than 15 percent increase in the number of vehicles serviced. "By customizing our offers and segmenting customer bases," Lack comments, "Sq1 and our franchises did an amazing job in adopting these new marketing strategies."

Looking ahead, Lack says Jiffy Lube will continue to focus on engaging with consumers through mobile devices, especially as mobile usage grows. The company sees more value in enhancing its mobile responsive site instead of developing a native app since apps are more useful when consumers use them on a regular basis such as for checking emails or the weather, according to Lack. "I'm lucky to see a consumer twice a year, so an app doesn't really make sense for us," he says. "What we're doing is building a mobile site that's as robust as an app, but easier to maintain, and provides our customers with all the information they need about our services."

Video is another way to entice customers. If someone makes an appointment to visit a dealership there's only a 50 to 60 percent chance that person will actually come in, according to Edmunds.com's Wise. Reminding customers of their appointment with a short video depicting the car they're interested in "can get them excited enough to come in," she says. "Consumers are bombarded with emails. We see video as a way to stand out."

Additionally, walking a customer through a virtual showroom or online store can determine whether the customer will take the next step to visit the actual showroom and purchase the car, says Andy Henshaw, founder and chief innovation officer of live video assistance provider Vee24. Companies like Audi, Lexus, and Jaguar Land Rover ask customers who are browsing their websites if they need assistance after the customer has clicked through various pages and is at risk of leaving the site.

Customers can see the agent speaking to them and have the option of being visible to the agent. The agent can also see the webpage that the customer is looking at and can guide him or her through the site. "Being able to actually see and speak to the salesperson in the contact center or dealership from the comfort of their own home or office, helps to build rapport and reassure customers that they're making the right buying decision," comments Henshaw. Video chat can also be a lead generator. Lexus Germany, for example, attributes 38 percent of its leads to Vee24's video service.

In addition, dealerships should extend their relationship with customers by meeting their car-related needs from routine servicing and financing questions to road trip and gas mileage tips, Henshaw adds. "After providing customers with an engaging experience during the sales cycle, that relationship can be built upon afterwardsthrough a client portal, mobile app, or email newsletter," he notes. "That can go a long way in ensuring that your business remains relevant to consumers long after they drive off of the lot."