The old-fashioned email campaign remains the top producer of sales prospects for dealerships, even as digital marketing becomes increasingly sophisticated.
Easy to use and relatively inexpensive, email yields about 39 percent of dealership leads, said Larry Bruce, a vice president at Naked Lime, a marketing and website unit of software giant Reynolds and Reynolds.
Naked Lime says emails fetch more than three times as many leads as direct mail (12 percent), paid search (11 percent) and organic search (9 percent). Traditional media, such as TV and radio, account for 4 percent and social media 2 percent.
Promotional emails offer advantages over other marketing channels, not least of which is cost, said Joel Hawley, sales and marketing manager of Two Rivers Ford near Nashville.
Email-driven leads account for about 30 percent of monthly vehicle sales at Two Rivers Ford, a family-owned, single-point store. That equates to 45 to 60 new and used vehicles per month at a marketing cost of about $5,000 per month. The cost includes some paid search and other digital advertising.
"That's what you used to spend for a two-page, weekend spread in the newspaper," Hawley said.
Besides being relatively cheap, emails can be narrowly targeted, Hawley said. For example, messages can be directed at customers with equity in their vehicles or those in need of service.
He said current customers typically get three to five emails a month from the dealership. The store has 19,758 email addresses.
Naked Lime's Bruce said email pitches come in two flavors: those to current customers and those to new shoppers.
Many dealerships use customer relationship management software to determine how best to communicate with current customers. But they'll often turn to outside vendors to chase new customers, Bruce said.
Successful campaigns have common traits. For starters, dealerships or their third-party vendors need good email addresses. If not, the messages might fail to land in such high numbers that email providers such as Gmail or Yahoo can flag them for spam.
Once good addresses are obtained, Bruce said succinct offers or coupons with a strong, direct headline are more likely to get the recipient to open the email.
Another tip: Any link embedded in the email should take the recipient to a specific landing page, not the dealership website.
"Be direct. Help the customer find what they want to find as quickly as possible," Bruce said.
Hawley said he likes email because it is easier to assess the effectiveness of a campaign compared with other forms of marketing.
Scott Harris, general manager of Bill Harris Dealerships in Ashland, Ohio, said email promotions have improved.
But he'd like to see vendors do better at following up with additional emails to recipients who want to be contacted. Retailers such as Nordstrom and Lowe's tend to be much quicker contacting prospects than auto retailers, he said.
Bill Harris has two stores, one with General Motors brands and the other with Fiat Chrysler brands. The group sells about 110 new and used vehicles per month.
Harris said the stores sell about 20 vehicles per month from email campaigns at a cost of $3,500.
"I believe we could double that if we followed up more effectively," he said.