Why now is the Time To Step Up Lead Efforts

Published: June 05, 2008, iMedia Connection

With consumers tightening their purse strings, it’s more important than ever for marketers to reach out to potential customers with relevant offers they can’t refuse.

Debate continues in the media as to the fate of the U.S. economy: Are we in a recession, or merely flirting with one?

For brand marketers, it turns out, the effect is the same. Consumers, made wary by gas prices over $4.00 a gallon, the mortgage mess and less-than-stellar employment forecasts, have tightened their purse strings. And when consumers spend less, marketing — traditionally a company’s first budget-cutting line of defense — is in trouble.

Yet there is much evidence, scholarly and anecdotal, that points to the wisdom of maintaining marketing spend during a recession. In fact, a recession is an ideal time to take advantage of consumers’ comfort with familiar brands by creating web-based interactive, direct-response campaigns that offer special promotions and savings.

Why web-based? A recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals that 81 percent of internet users research products online — for convenience (78 percent), time savings (68 percent) and the ability to find bargains (ranging from 38 percent of 50-to 64-year-olds to 62 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds).

Tough economic times not only lead consumers to do online research, they lead to more time spent researching and comparing brands and prices. A recent Prospectiv survey, which discovered that 84 percent of those polled had changed their shopping habits due to concerns about recession, gives further clues to consumer behavior in this economic downturn:

  • 66 percent are logging more hours online researching and comparing brands and prices
  • 74 percent would welcome more online offers, coupons and e-newsletters from their favorite brands and products
  • 60 percent are more likely to sign up/join a website or online community that offers recipes, healthy meal ideas, cooking tips and savings they can use at home

As consumers under financial pressure ponder a switch from favored brands to generics, brand marketers must seek out ways to engage consumers online, using direct-response interactive marketing to reinforce the value of brand.

We strongly believe that marketers should consider countering the effects of the downturn by stepping up programs that build strong relationships with consumers who have exhibited interest in your goods and services. Take the opportunity to add to your in-house opt-in email newsletter list and reach out with these tips:

  • Consumers are eager for special promotions and savings during tough economic periods — now is the time to consider a brand-building campaign.
  • Consider campaigns designed to generate leads as well as near-term sales. Whether you have a brick-and-mortar store or website, use a well-timed, anti-recession campaign to drive traffic.
  • Provide information that’s clear, relevant and easy to find online. The Pew study found that 43 percent of searchers were frustrated by a lack of information, or the difficulty of finding information about brands they were interested in. Another 32 percent were confused by the information they were able to locate.
  • Be selective in your programs. Market only to consumers you identify who have an interest in your product/brand and have requested your offers and promotions.
  • Be aware that some 70 percent of internet users are still concerned about giving out personal information or credit card information online. Treat your customers with care — many of them are wary.
  • Monitor campaigns closely for performance and redirect your efforts as needed to improve results.
  • Consider using pay-for-performance lead-generation programs. You’ll pay only for results, versus clicks or impressions.

Don’t forget the most important metrics of a brand campaign — quality and relevance. In difficult times consumers aren’t shopping for nice-to-haves; they are focused on must-haves. Here, pay-for-performance lead-generation campaigns that build your own opt-in email lists and produce consumers who are interested in your product and brand are particularly useful because they make it easy for marketers to ensure relevance, and simple to measure lead quality at several points in the campaign, before handoff to sales.

Finally, in a down market brand marketers must maintain a laser focus on lead-generation best practices to ensure high quality leads and maintain a respectful relationship with consumers to build trust and discourage abuse of consumer privacy.

Opportunity for brand marketers comes in many forms. In these unstable economic times, it is incumbent on marketers to reach out to consumers with offers, promotions and information that reinforce brand preference, provide much-needed purchase information, and offer advice, tips and ideas for living well while saving.


Weekly ISM Checklist

from drivingsales.com, posted 6/3/08

Now for the weekly check list.  ISMs need to be completelting these items on a weekly basis and reporting to their management on their progress of each of these items.  Following this task list regularly will greatly increase your success: 

Weekly Check List

Date _______

1. __ Visit dealership website. Call toll free and other phone numbers to ensure they’re working and being answered properly.

2. __ Check AutoTrader, Cars.com, UsedCars.com, and/or other third party website photos, pricing information, and phone numbers.

3. __ Blind shop competitors selling both similar and different makes and models.

4. __ Post any upcoming Events and Specials on website. Be careful about posting any future discounts or pricing – those should be only posted once they are on, or when they are about to end to instill urgency.

5. __ Schedule broadcast email once per month, at the beginning of the third week of the month. Preferably, send on Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. Always have something for the customer first and foremost – give them a compelling reason to open your email.

6. __ Schedule automated targeted email campaigns to existing customers, including interests, specials, birthdays, etc.

7. __ Check with vendors to see if there are duplicate addresses they are sending leads to, to former employees, etc..

8. __ Test templated emails to see how they are arriving to customers.

9. __ Check your site for manufacturers compliance or non-compliances issues.

10. __ If you find any issues, send an email to your vendor (so you have it in writing), cc-ing your GM or ID, and immediately follow up with a phone call. If the issue is not resolved in 24 hours, re-send the email, and cc you GM or ID. They should take it from there.

Following these processes and checklists will help you maximize you efforts and success! Good luck.


Ensure That Your Web Site Pulls in Buyers

From Digital Dealer Magazine May 2008
by : Peter Batten

Your online store is just as important as your showroom, and the reason why is clear: 70 percent of new vehicle buyers use the Internet to vehicle shop, as do 61 percent of used vehicle buyers (2007 J.D. Power and Associates New Autoshopper.com & Used Autoshopper.com studies). But, as you may have noticed, simply having a web site will not increase your traffic, leads, or sales. In fact, a flaccid web site can do more harm than good as potential customers quickly ascertain that they will not find the information they want and leave your site in favor of a big portal or automaker site. But it does not have to be that way. You can make your dealership web site a best-in-class consumer destination with the features and tools that give your customers the comprehensive content, intuitive navigation, and breadth of information found on leading portals and manufacturer sites. That’s right: your site can be as impressive as any automotive site out there. And you can do it all with a minimum of development time.

Lifestyle search capabilities
With a lifestyle search, a consumer can search for vehicles that match their needs without having to know any esoteric vehicle information. For example, a customer can search by body style, like SUV, coupe, or convertible, instead of having to start searching by make and model. Many consumers do not know what exact trim they want; they just know they need an SUV because they carry cargo on slippery roads, or a compact because they want to save on gas bills. Lifestyle searches are intuitive for consumers, allowing them to find the vehicle they want with the least amount of hassle and frustration. 

Powerful comparison features
A J.D. Powers and Associates study focusing on best practices on manufacturer web sites found that consumers loved powerful comparison tools that allowed them to compare multiple vehicles at one time (2006 Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation StudySM – J.D. Powers and Associates). They found that side-by-side and advantage-based comparisons are especially useful because shoppers can quickly scan the results and even print out results for future consideration. There are several companies who can equip your web site with a robust comparison tool in record time.

Vehicle images and videos
The same J.D. Powers and Associates study cited above found that consumers gravitate to vehicle images and videos, which put them immediately in the virtual driver’s seat. Videos are especially valuable for demonstrating functionality and versatility of a vehicle including: acceleration, cornering, stopping, and much more. Color changes and interior shots are invaluable for helping the consumer to experience the vehicle and for generating excitement and the desire to buy. Consider including a comprehensive equipment listing for each of your vehicles alongside a detailed photo that consumers can click to view different angles, interior shots, colors, and live-action video.
Build-A-Car tool tied to your inventory
The advantages of a Build-A-Car tool on your web site have been well documented. Give consumers the opportunity to design the car of their dreams and they will stay on your site longer, return again and again, and convert into a valid prospect at a higher rate. Bump this tool up to the next level by integrating it with your inventory so customers can see what you have available. 

Online credit applications
You want prospects to become buyers. An additional feature to help you meet this goal is the online credit application. By including a secure link to a credit application that a customer can immediately complete, you are saving that customer time and hassle and also converting a lead into a viable prospect. Use the credit application as a virtual shopping cart to close qualified buyers in record time.


Maximizing Pre-Owned Traffic From the Internet

By: Pat Ryan, Jr.
From Digital Dealer Magazine February 2008

Every week seems to bring an interesting new study on how consumers are using the Internet in their car buying process. While all of these studies point to the importance of an evolving e-strategy for dealerships, it is not always easy for dealers to glean actionable takeaways from these studies. With all the data flying around, this presents a great opportunity to make sense of it all. Let’s start with the most dramatic headline.

The 2007 Dealer eBusiness Performance study sponsored by Yahoo revealed that 88 percent of consumers use the Internet for research prior to visiting a dealership. At the same time, dealers we hear from typically report 15 to 20 percent of their business coming from their Internet departments.

What happened to the 68 percent of buyers that used the Internet to research vehicles yet were invisible to the Internet department? Simply put, they may have shopped your “virtual frontline” but did so anonymously; some later came to visit your dealership while others bought from your competitor.

Why do the majority of buyers using the Internet choose to stay invisible to your Internet department? Because the majority of Internet shoppers are reluctant to share their personal information online with dealers or third-party web sites and therefore never become a “lead.” The result: the majority of visitors to your “virtual frontline” are invisible and untouchable for your Internet team.

How does this impact my business?
Dealers routinely work hard to engage every guest who walks their lot and shops through the traditional buying process. In the online world, if your vehicle is not competitively priced with similar vehicles in your market, a consumer will leave your virtual frontline for another dealer’s with one click, never returning and never speaking with anyone on your team. Buyers will also “vote” with their mouse by clicking away from vehicles that do not have enough pictures, have poor quality pictures, or lack compelling descriptions.
What makes dealerships vulnerable to these kinds of missteps?

Dealerships traditionally priced pre-owned inventory on a “cost-plus” basis-pricing the vehicle to ensure they have enough room to negotiate with a customer and still sell a vehicle for a strong gross profit. Since pre-owned vehicles are more varied in value because of age, condition, mileage etc., consumers were unlikely to find a similar vehicle to yours across the street, giving dealers the upper hand. However, in the Internet age, customers can see your pricing next to nearly all of the similar vehicles in your market, making cost-plus pricing a barrier to driving traffic from the Internet.

In addition to the consumer being empowered by the Internet, dealers who are inconsistent in putting enough pictures or robust vehicle descriptions online will find themselves clicked past by consumers as well. It’s no longer enough to just be online. Dealers need to excel online by being as diligent in merchandising your online inventory as you are in the presentation of your dealership’s showroom.

How can I maximize my pre-owned traffic from the Internet?
1. Market pricing – Replace “cost-plus” pricing with market pricing by competitive shopping every vehicle versus the competition. This ensures that your pricing will appear fair for its value in online search results. Treat competitive vehicles online the same way you would if they were on the frontline across the street. Price based on the “key strengths” of your vehicles but be realistic given the competition.

2. Consistently execute the online advertising fundamentals – Mystery shop your own dealership to ensure all of your vehicles are online with robust descriptions and pictures. You’d never put a vehicle on the frontline without detailing it. Make sure you detail your online vehicles to the same standard.

3. Mystery shop the competition – Experience your dealership’s “virtual frontline” versus the competition as the consumer will experience it. Go to an online advertising site such as autotrader.com or cars.com and see how your vehicles compare. If you are using market pricing and executing online advertising fundamentals consistently your vehicles should show well, but you may find that your vehicles differentiation is not clear to a potential buyer. For example, you may find that your vehicle is the lowest mileage vehicle in the market. In that case it may be okay to be the highest priced vehicle; you simply need to ensure that your online listings are highlighting the value. Know each vehicle’s online market and ensure that your listings are highlighting the unique value of each vehicle.

With those three simple steps any dealer can ensure that they are maximizing the potential of the online advertising they are purchasing. The key is to execute consistently, the same way you do every day in merchandising the showroom and frontline at your dealership.


Yellow Pages and Search Engine Marketing

A couple of questions today. First, are you still running an ad in the yellow pages? Of course you are, right? And you’re also running an ongoing search engine marketing (SEM) program, right? No? Really?

Here’s the thing. Google is well on its way to killing the yellow pages. In my house, we tossed our yellow pages book the day we got a laptop and wireless internet. If you’re not spending twice as much capturing leads online as you are through the big yellow book, you’re probably missing the boat.

Let’s say someone finds you in the yellow pages. They still have to pick up the phone or drive out to your dealership (or visit your website – your web address is on your yellow pages ad, right?), but online they can be out on your site searching your inventory and completing a financing application in a matter of seconds.

It’s a sign of the times and it’s time to adjust your spending accordingly.

D. Jones
Marketing Strategist/Creative Consultant
SmackDabble, LLC

Still Not Gathering Customer Emails? Really?!

So I was working with a client recently and asked, as a part of a marketing strategy session, what percentage of customers in their database they had email addresses for. A sheepish look came over the owner’s face, and he hemmed and hawed a bit before telling me they didn’t have any customers email addresses because, “The software didn’t have a field for it.” It took everything I had to keep from smacking him across the face and asking him how he was enjoying life in 1987.Two things were wrong here… One, they were still using the same contact management system that they’d started using in the early 90s. Second, they thought this was somehow fine and dandy.Email is arguably the most significant communications development since the invention of the telephone. It allows for instant communication at virtually no cost. And this company didn’t think it was an important tool to be using. And my guess is, they’re not alone out there.

If you find yourself among this crowd, it’s time to get with the program. This internet thing is here to stay. It’s not a fad. It can change the way you do business. If you let it.

D. Jones
Marketing Strategist/Creative Consultant
SmackDabble, LLC

What your Internet Leads Really Want

by : Aimee Romero

From Digital Dealer Magazine – December 2007

Though most of the people who visit your dealership have first researched online, consumers who actually submit leads online are in a league of their own. These people are at a different point in the buying cycle and should be treated accordingly. To successfully turn Internet leads into sales, there are a few things you should know about online consumers and how to get through to them.

Online leads are often submitted early in the buying process

In other words, online consumers are interested in information first, a purchase later. The J.D. Power and Associates 2006 New Autoshopper.com Study indicates a change in the focus of online car shopping in general; consumers are increasingly interested in finding the right car, as opposed to the right price.

Online consumers use the Internet for research. They’re looking for the right car. When they find it, they will buy. Make sure that sale is yours; walk your Internet leads through the process of finding their perfect car. Let them go at their own pace. Be careful not to jump the gun and ask for a sale too quickly. You want to build trust by listening to their criteria, making solid suggestions, and helping them find a car that works for them. If you keep them comfortable, they’re far less likely to buy from another dealer at the last minute.

Give online consumers what they want

According to the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 New Autoshopper.com Study, more shoppers are looking to manufacturer sites for the information they can’t get elsewhere. One way to keep your dealership in step with this growing trend is to make sure your web site’s calls to action aren’t all based on “get a quote” or “take a test drive.” Many online consumers would be more interested in submitting a lead if your dealership offered to answer questions and help them find their dream car.

Follow up with your leads quickly

Internet shoppers are not just looking for information on a specific car, but on many cars. They expect help finding the car that best fits their lifestyle and needs. It’s more important than ever to quickly respond to your leads. Because Internet users are reaching out for information, chances are they’re looking in multiple places. The sooner you respond to them with the information they need, the more likely they are to stick with your dealership. Once you are in communication with your lead, make sure to listen and be helpful. Don’t push the sale.

Ask questions

Online consumers shouldn’t be the only ones digging for information. You should help them by doing the same. It’s in your best interest to listen intently to what your consumers are saying. Use the data your web site has collected in their lead submission. Ask questions that will help you determine not only what your consumers think they want, but also what their lifestyle is like. Do they have a family? Are they buying a car for their teenager? Do they primarily drive in the city? Find out about your consumers and their habits. This will help you offer them qualified help while building trust and increasing their comfort.

While price will always be a large factor in decision-making, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 New AutoShopper.com Study, almost three-fourths of online lead submitters do not consider themselves “highly price sensitive.” This is a dream come true for dealers! It’s not about the bottom line anymore. It’s about the relationships you are building with your customers and satisfying their needs.

When you’re gently leading your online consumers to the car that best fits their lifestyle, requirements and dreams, keep in mind that building this relationship will likely result not only in a car sale, but in a returning customer – and consequently, many sales to come.


How to Personalize the Online Sales Experience

by : John Federman Digital Dealer Magazine
November 2007

Professionals in the automotive industry are known for their knack of engaging customers the minute they walk onto a showroom floor. However, most dealers fail to deliver that same personal touch when it comes to their online presence.

Some dealers have yet to embrace the Internet as a sales channel, while others are hesitant to dedicate full-time resources to managing Internet driven leads. At this year’s annual Vehix Auto Sales Summit in Deer Valley, Utah, one dealer told an industry analyst from the Kelsey Group that,“Some dealers drop everything for that customer that walks in the door, but they won’t answer the phone or pay attention to electronic leads.” However, that auto dealer also noted that, “For people that come in the door the closing percentage is about 16 percent, but with online leads the closing percentage is much higher. These customers are more knowledgeable and more armed to buy a vehicle. If we get back to them right away, it’s a better prospect than a person walking in the door.”

Clearly, dealers that view their web sites as simple brochures, and fail to engage customers as proactively as they would in the showroom, do so at their own peril.

Engaging customers online
Personal service goes a long way with car buyers on the dealer lot. A standout sales professional is usually one that has established such a good buying experience with customers that they are motivated to not only buy another vehicle from him, but also recommend the salesperson to friends and family. These sales professionals remember names, promptly return phone calls and follow up to address customer questions and alert them to service deals or new specials. In short, they anticipate customer needs and deliver on customer requests.

A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates found that online customer satisfaction was highest for those dealers and automotive marketplaces that responded promptly to online inquiries once they’re submitted. “Walk-in and call-in shoppers receive responses in a more timely manner at auto dealerships compared with online shoppers,” said Steve Witten, executive director of marketing/media research at J.D. Power and Associates. “An opportunity exists for dealers to improve the return on their investment in lead services by paying as much attention to online leads as they would to in-person or phone sales leads by responding just as quickly.”

Dealers who haven’t embraced their web site as a customer-focused sales channel are losing their chance to promote potentially lucrative customer relationships. Another J.D. Power study found that consumers that research vehicles online are likely to convert at higher rates than those that don’t. If these online researchers contact a dealer, they’re quite likely hot prospects.

In a world where competitors are just a click away, delays in responding to online leads could make all the difference in closing a sale. Any lag time between online shopping and the visit to the dealership can be expedited simply by enabling potential customers to ask questions and receive answers in a timely fashion.

Proactive conversion solutions
As a compromise, dealers often adopt a minimalist approach that relies on self-service tools like FAQs, low-touch e-mail exchanges and anonymous web forms to provide online customer service. Though these tools certainly have their place on dealer web sites, studies have shown they are less effective in promoting customer satisfaction or generating qualified leads than offering live assistance.

As a result, some of the leading names in the industry have adopted click to call and click to chat technology to engage high-value prospects with a live sales agent online or over the phone. Because not every customer visit merits live assistance, click to call and click to chat both allow dealers to create business rules that dictate which online prospects should be escalated to the phone or chat. For example, customers that have spent several minutes on your site and begin to configure and price a vehicle can be prompted with either click to call or chat, while those that are looking to simply schedule a service appointment are directed to an e-mail form.

Click to call services deployed across key purchasing points on brand web sites for Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep drive sales conversions, with twice as many click to call callers purchasing a vehicle compared to standard inbound callers.

Autobytel, an online only automotive dealer, also implemented a customer service program that quickly connects online patrons with its call center. Using a form to phone solution, Internet browsers simply fill out a quick form, and the online retailer of choice or nearest franchise of that brand is immediately alerted to the customer request and sent a copy of the form. Once alerted, companies can reach out to these prospects and speak with them while they’re still hot. And as it turns out, timing is everything. Since deploying form to phone, Autobytel has increased the volume of qualified leads by 52 percent and doubled the closing rates of Autobytel car dealers.

Click to call offers the power of voice, allowing Internet sales professionals to answer questions while they are fresh in the consumer’s mind. Chat, on the other hand, enables dealerships to handle multiple web visitors at once while still allowing consumers to interact with an agent to answer a few questions.

To use these technologies, customers need only to click a button embedded on a web site and a customer service representative contacts them instantly via their preferred channel – online or offline. While the power of direct customer contact has been documented at length, click to call and live chat solutions leverage real-time web analytics to inform dealers about the customer’s activity the instant a connection is initiated. This sharing of data from the web to phone or chat channels, enables dealers to offer personalized and effective service, as well as insight into potential cross-sell and up-sell opportunities.

Using click to call and click to chat technology extends personal customer service beyond the dealer walls. As online marketing matures, leading companies are focusing on providing a consistent customer experience across all of their sales channels. Soon, a sales agent – regardless of whether he is in a showroom or chat room – will be able to proactively engage customers and kindly say, “May I help you with something?”


Websites Can’t Create Leads

Your website has never created a single lead. There, I said it. Long lauded as the be all, end all of internet marketing, the website will always remain a limited, albeit powerful tool. Why is that, you ask? Well it’s because your website will always be a reactive marketing tool.

Your website sits out there in cyberspace, all shiny and glowing, whirring with multimedia and powerful data support. But until a consumer comes along, it’s worthless because it can’t go out and find leads. The best your website can hope for is to upgrade leads (turning a warm lead into a hot lead) and capture leads. You still need other tools (search marketing, email marketing, mass advertising, etc.) to drive leads to your site.

So, is your website important? Yes, it can be the most powerful tool in your marketing arsenal. But it can’t function in a vacuum — it’s the most important piece of a complete, integrated digital marketing presence.

D. Jones
Marketing Strategist/Creative Consultant
SmackDabble, LLC

The Future Is Clear For Some Dealerships Where Most Are Still in a Fog

Many dealerships are gearing up their efforts to build their email database, knowing this will be their primary means of communication with their customers now and in the future. As newspaper advertising continues to decline the prevalence of Internet Marketing will increase and the dealership with the largest email database is king. In fact those dealerships that make the greatest strides now will potentially set themselves so far ahead, other dealerships may not catch up.

That is a free and unlimited advertising conduit to send out sales announcements, rebates, incentives, videos, product information, and who knows what the future of multi-media will entail.

Hind sight is 20/20 they say, but I sure would not want to be looking back, saying “I wish I would have …”

Brian Cox
Dealer Impact Systems