When Mark Bonfigli got into the car business with his brother in the early 1990s, they were all about matching buyers with specific vehicles. They were going to do it without salespeople and advertising. That model worked in Burlington, Vt., but quickly proved inadequate to keep up with the huge database they compiled -- with paper and pencil.
With the rise of the Internet, Bonfigli formed EarthCars.com and quickly developed tools to automate the marketing and selling of vehicles online. The business was renamed Dealer.com in 2001 and today employs 100 people who build dealer Web sites (4,000 to date, the company says) and a kit of online tools such as search-engine marketing and lead generation for retailers.
Bonfigli, 37, CEO of Dealer.com, spoke this month with Special Correspondent John Couretas about the expectations of online shoppers.
Dealers initially greeted Internet shoppers with skepticism. How do dealers perceive those shoppers today?
There's been a huge shift in regards to dealers' understanding that Internet customers are not unique customers. They represent the majority of the customer base now. And without a solid Internet strategy, it would be damaging to a dealer's business now not to be competing for those customers.
What are dealers doing today to be more responsive to online inquiries?
Twenty-four/seven, 365 days a year, your online marketing solution should be able to provide quality information in an automated fashion whenever dealer personnel cannot do it themselves. This is along the lines of what Google does for people. If you ask a question of Google, it gives you quality information very quickly. Many of the dealers in the United States that rely solely on humans to respond during business hours are getting back to some customers 12 to 14 hours later and sometimes 20 hours later. And because of that, they lose the sale or they lose the confidence of the consumer. That's the biggest flaw right now.
Give an example of a quality response generated automatically.
It does not mean sending a "Thank you for writing our dealership, we'll get back to you." It means, "Thank you for requesting information on the Toyota Camry. Here is detailed information. Feel free to browse all of this information and ask additional questions with a live person as soon as you're ready." It needs to be a specific approach to solving specific consumer questions and concerns. And it has to be instantaneous.
Do dealers understand how the growth of online advertising, and particularly search-engine marketing, is driving consumer behavior in many industries?
With the rise of search-engine technology, dealers are being forced to understand just how powerful the Internet truly is. Because where customers can't be found, they will not be found. In the same way that consumers shop for personal computers or a new digital camera or a new home, the Internet plays a dominant role in that process. And search engines are forcing them to understand that.
In the future, what kind of results should dealers expect from online advertising?
We'll see continued growth in online advertising, and it will evolve so that you'll know the exact cost per sale and the exact cost per lead of any advertising you do. Period. There should be no advertising where you cannot measure and quantify. It's going to become so scientific in how you broaden and reach further into your market.
What will that deeper reach look like?
You'll see more blog advertising or advertising on a site like MySpace. An advertising solution might include auctions. There's no reason why dealers couldn't start having their own auctions for inventory that is aged. We'll be able to geo-target consumers' needs and demographics. Consumers are going to expect that the auto industry will be more integrated into search engines. The industry is going to find that when someone goes to AOL or Google or MSN and does a search for a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta with less than 30,000 miles, they're going to expect to see inventory instantly in their area. One of the options consumers are going to have is to see where those vehicles are on a map, how far away they are, what they look like, what they cost. Consumers are going to ultimately be able to go to one source to find what they want, which is what they do now with search engines.