At Rick McGill's Airport Toyota in Alcoa, Tenn., online marketing isn't a department unto itself. Instead, it is integrated into the dealership's business development department.
'We have a dedicated manager, a dedicated room for telephone work,' says dealer Rick McGill. 'We follow up with our customer base. We follow up with our lease base. We put our Web site operations in that room, and it's monitored daily.
'We make sure to e-mail people back. On several occasions, we've set up appointments by e-mail. We run it on a day-to-day basis.'
Blending the Net effort into overall business development has enabled McGill to buck one trend: The dealership does not subscribe to any online services to get its leads.
'We don't use any of the services,' says Mike Bryant, business development manager. 'One of the things Rick has insisted on, and I agree 100 percent, is that we need to keep our own identity. The buying services tend to want to absorb you.'
Instead, Air-port Toyota builds Web site traffic by working its customer base through the business-development staff.
'We send out 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of mail per month,' McGill says. 'We are continually in contact with our owners. We have a 12,000-person owner body.'
Airport Toyota also supports the online effort by including it in all print and broadcast advertising, as well as billboards. McGill says about 15 of the dealership's 255 average monthly vehicle sales can be solidly attributed to the Web. Although it is hard to pin down direct links between Web visits and car sales, Bryant says that's not really much different from measuring results of other advertising.
'Dealers should view it as they view the rest of their advertising,' he says. 'I don't think you're ever 100 percent sure of how many people come in as a result of print or radio or a TV spot. We just look at it as an advertising expense.'
McGill says the dealership spends a little less than $10,000 per year on its Web effort - about the cost of a full-page color ad in the local newspaper. Or, as Bryant put it, 'Being on the Web is a rounding error in the ad budget.'
Even if it were more costly, McGill says he would feel that he had to be online to meet the expectations of Toyota buyers, who 'do a lot of research before they ultimately make it to the dealer.'
'It used to be done in Consumer Reports,' McGill says. 'Now that same consumer gets that same information off the Net.'
And that is probably preferable, if only because Net information is more timely, he says.
'There can be a lot of misinformation in those magazines,' he says. 'Prices increase after publication. Our site is always current. When they come in after looking at our site, they have accurate information.'
Airport Toyota's site has a distinctive design, part of what Bryant says is an effort to continually view other sites and upgrade: 'We try to stay a step or a step and a half ahead.'
Bryant says the diversity of Net shoppers has proved surprising. Initially, he and McGill expected to see an 'upper-echelon clientele, from a financial and intellectual basis.'
'You know that a wide variety of people are looking at it when a guy comes in in a jacked-up four-wheel truck after driving over from the trailer park and brings in a Web page he's printed out,' Bryant says. 'This has become a pretty normal thing for a wide variety of people.'
Any dealer who tries to ignore the Net is making a big mistake, in McGill's opinion.
'It's not going to go away,' he says. 'You'd better not stiff-arm it. You'd better embrace it, because it's going to get big.'