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Dealer’s Voice: Dealerships catch up to digital marketing

For any business to ignore the Internet in 2012 is almost a recipe for failure.

Published October 19, 2012

A few weeks ago, the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association hosted automotive digital marketing conferences in Toronto, London and Ottawa.

All three conferences were full-day events attended by dealer principals, sales managers, automotive students and marketing personnel and featured some of North America’s leading internet marketers.

The speakers shared some fascinating stats and trends about online marketing and provided plenty of practical, how-to advice for those in attendance. The conferences were hugely successful and timely.

Just two years ago, I would have said that Canadian car dealers in general were missing the boat with online marketing (myself included). Far too many websites featured cookie-cutter templates and designs, outdated information and few interactive capabilities.

Today, online marketing has become more sophisticated; dealers are aggressively developing online strategies to connect with customers and manage reputations. Indeed, for any business to ignore the Internet in 2012 is almost a recipe for failure.

According to Google, when shopping for cars today, 58 per cent of research is performed online in helping consumers arrive at the “Zero Moment of Truth” (the term is also the name of a free e-book published by Google in 2011). As described in the book, the ZMOT is a moment in which “the social and collaborative nature of the web becomes the determining factor in a shopper’s decision making.”

Consumers are searching for all types of information and will visit 18 sources of information on average before making a purchasing decision (in 2011, that figure was 10).

Let’s put that into perspective. Prior to 1995 (when the Internet gained mass acceptance), car shoppers would see an advertisement in the media and their ability to research different makes and models was limited to a few print publications and consumer magazines.

Word of mouth and reputation were still important, but there were no websites where consumers could go to share their experiences and opinions about a given dealership or manufacturer.

Thanks to technological innovations, consumers now have access to thousands of credible sources to help them make informed buying decisions: dealership websites, manufacturers’ official websites, online pricing guides, automotive blogs and magazines, video sharing sites, social media pages and independent review sites.

One of the most powerful influences for car buyers is independent, third-party reviews at sites like Yelp, DealerRater and Google Places. According to one of the speakers at the conference, 84 per cent of Americans say that online evaluations influence their buying decisions.

Several themes emerged from the conference, most notably the need for credible and relevant content. A few years ago, it might have been OK for dealers to maintain a website and ignore web-based activities.

But that’s no longer an option. Faced with this growing appetite for information, dealers have been exploring multiple technologies to weave their own narratives and leverage their brands, everything from social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest), live chat functionality and review-based sites to electronic marketing (e-newsletters) and text messaging.

As online marketing becomes more fragmented, dealers are turning to marketing firms that specialize in digital services. A growing number of dealers even employ a dedicated Internet sales team whose job it is to manage all online marketing activities.

Of course, the big winners in this digital /information revolution are car shoppers, who now have access to an astonishing array of credible information on all types of automobiles, brands, accessories and services.

Although it is the intention of dealers everywhere to stay ahead of the digital curve and to improve the car buying experience, digital marketing is still in its infancy.

If you have suggestions or comments about the way your local car dealer is marketing itself online, then by all means contact a manager at the store. Dealers rely on your feedback in whatever channel it’s delivered.

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