BURLINGTON, VT – Dealer.com, one of the nation’s largest automotive digital marketing companies, had humble beginnings here 20 years ago.
Five people (four of them tech guys, one a dealer) created the company at a dealership here. The original initiative was to design and build websites for dealerships. Early dealership websites lacked the high functionality and interactivity of today’s “digital storefronts” or so-called second showrooms.
Dealer.com now employs 1,200 people at its Burlington headquarters (more nationwide) and is one of the top-10 employers in Vermont. It helps thousands of franchised and independent auto retailers navigate the convoluted world of digital retailing in various ways.
Those include creating written and graphic content for digital marketing, fostering search-engine optimization to gain high list rankings on car shoppers’ search returns and overseeing social-media community-reach efforts.
It’s a changing environment, says Mike Rother, general manager at Dealer.com, a Cox Automotive brand. “The next 20 years will look very different than the last 20 years. We’ve gone from a product-centric to an experience-centric organization. We think of innovation in terms of how you change the process, service or experience.”
Millennials make up nearly 75% of the company’s employees. They work in sectioned-off open-floor settings in a repurposed factory that serves as company headquarters.
“The right job candidate fit is a digital native who grew up with it,” Rother says. “Then we teach them both what dealerships do and what we do.”
Consumers want to do more than just shop for cars online, dealers are seeking new ways to drive efficiencies and automakers are “becoming more involved in the digital-marketing space than ever before” by providing co-op advertising funds to dealers, he says.
Technology is evolving on different fronts, Rother says, citing a few:
· Personalization, or sending individual online shoppers customized messages based on their tracked (mainly with cookies) Internet car-shopping activity. Personalization increases click-through rates 2.5 times. “Some people are annoyed if you don’t know anything about them,” Rother says of consumers.
· Expanded digital retailing that allows online consumers to “shop from their couch” and do much of the heavy lifting involved in a car deal, including viewing inventory in detail, arranging credit and beginning a trade-in process. “We’ve seen penciled deals done in 30 minutes.”
· Targeted advertising. “You can’t spray and pray anymore,” Rother says.
· Attribution, or who gets credit for marketing that influences a car sale. Such attribution is easier said than done. “There is an average of 24 touchpoints” and top honors “no longer go to the last guy.”
An attractive and active dealership website is vital, but the home page is secondary to many serious shoppers with a vehicle in mind, he says. “More than 50% of them skip the homepage and go directly to landing pages based on what vehicle they’ve been looking at.” (Mike Rother, left)
Those specific web pages typically are called vehicle detail pages. Rother prefers another name: vehicle deal pages. Whatever they are called, dealers should focus on the proper placement of a main photo, the quality of the written vehicle descriptions and the accompanying gallery of photos.
Research indicates only 11% of auto consumers want to do the full process online. The vast majority want to visit the dealership at some point. That online to off-line transition should be seamless, Rother says.
“The worst experience is when someone who has been shopping online restarts cold at the dealership because the staff doesn’t know anything about what the customer has been doing online,” he says.
Successful marketing is never accidental, says Erica Danford, who heads Dealer.com’s managed services. Her 250-person team includes SEO specialists who help dealer clients’ listings show up high on search-engine results.
About nine in 10 online shoppers click listings that appear on the first search-return page, she says. SEO accounted for 19% of Dealer.com’s business last year. It’s 28% this year and “growing,” Danford says.
User interest wanes past the first search-result page. The fall off is such that Andy MacLeay, Dealer.com’s digital marketing director, says, “Where’s the best place to hide a body? On page two of Google.”