Inline ads. Search engine optimization. Customer-data platforms. Organic versus paid social media. VSR pages and VDPs. Online and in-store alignment. No question about it – dealership marketing has become a complex and sometimes overwhelming endeavor with plenty of moving parts. How can dealers make sure they have all the right marketing components in place? And how can they ensure these many facets of marketing are working in harmony to maximize revenue and return on investment? For clarity, Automotive News asked John Houmis, senior vice president of client engagement and experience at Ansira, a global marketing company, to shed some light on the matter.
Building a multi-pronged marketing program at your dealership
Q: With so many digital marketing services available, what should dealers keep in-house and what should they outsource?
John Houmis: In my experience, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for dealers’ digital marketing strategies. I’ve seen dealers tackle these efforts with different approaches, dependent on their investment in resources (talent, partners, and tech) and their commitment to the success of their plan. Social media is often taken in-house but can become dormant if there aren’t dedicated resources and established processes. Dealers who have successfully taken social media internal stick to a posting calendar, vary the creative images and format and commit to continuous testing. Social-media experts on Ansira’s team recommend that dealers understand their goals in promoting their brand while better connecting their team to the local community with their social plan.
When it comes to digital advertising and search-engine optimization (SEO), support from an expert team like Ansira’s digital program strategists is worth the investment. Media, for example, is a blend of human talent and technology working together, and vendor scale matters to garner the best return on investment (ROI). Placing ads sounds simple but bidding for space at the optimal time via the right channel - all at the right price – is extremely complicated. SEO led by talented professionals should be ongoing and ever evolving. Our teams have found that dealers who work with Ansira for PowerSEO, digital advertising and website performance management see a 135 percent increase in engagement and a 130 percent increase in leads. So, while I understand that marketing budgets are not limitless, the most successful dealers have a long term strategy comprised of a mix of paid and organic efforts.
Should you opt to work with a provider for any of these efforts, look for a partner who wants to discuss your goals and strategy.
Q: Most dealers want to promote the three main components of their dealership: new cars, used cars and service. How are the smartest dealers prioritizing these three components on their websites these days?
Houmis: Striking a balance among these three critical areas often is elusive. While we do see that some of the large auto groups and a great number of dealers have this dialed in, it’s not the case across the board. Consumers want an easy, transparent experience on a dealer website, and they need to find the information they want quickly and easily. Dealers must ask themselves if their websites are enabling the customer journey, or are they getting roadblocked by “purple gorillas” and pop-up “Whac-A-Moles” with every page they view?
Many dealers do a great job of prioritizing the pillars of new cars, used cars and service and some of the best sites are simple and clean without a single gorilla. For example, on the home page, there might be only a search bar above the fold with three buttons for components directly under it.
While you can consider your site’s home page as the front door, consumers may enter through various pages, such as a vehicle search results (VSR) page or a vehicle display page (VDP).
A dealership’s website is as important as its bricks-and-mortar store. And just like a physical dealership, you need to invest in it. Critique your website regularly just as you would periodically check the cleanliness of your restrooms. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it exercise – your team should constantly assess, refine, and test your website to ensure your consumer has a seamless experience. Ansira’s team of experts provide best practices, innovations, strategy, and advanced analytics to help you execute the best digital experience for your consumers.
We just went through this process of self-evaluation and improvement when dissecting the VSR page feature on our website platform. After the home page, the VSR page is the most highly visited on a dealer’s website. It makes sense that if you want a particular message to reach your shoppers, this search-results page is an ideal place to put that ad message. Ansira now empowers dealers to embed promotional messages inline on the search-results page. It can be used to highlight vehicles that qualify for a particular offer, drive traffic to trade-in and finance pre-qualification forms, highlight benefits from third-party partnerships and more. Because of continued iterations, we’ve seen that through the use of inline ads, dealers can now drive leads, promote offers and build their brands, right from the search-results page.
Keep in mind that success with these pillars and the traffic through the various site pages requires a commitment to SEO, which highlights how the many facets of your digital marketing work together to set you apart.
Q: With new-car inventory levels still below the norm, should dealers adjust their marketing investments? If so, how?
Houmis: While inventories may still be below the norms of pre-pandemic levels, they are rising rapidly across the country. Dealerships that found themselves with single-digit inventory counts now have hundreds of vehicles to work through. Also, in many instances, the OEMs are sending what they can ship, but not always shipping what the dealers want to stock, so that adds to the challenge. It’s important to remember that when inventories rise in days of supply, the carrying costs associated with them also rise.
These realities mean that dealers need to reassess their marketing budgets and overall spending. Over the last few years, dealers have had the luxury of pulling back on their marketing spends because demand resulted in sales as soon as inventory was grounded. Now that inventory is more prevalent, the competition for consumers is heating up rapidly. The messaging you wish to convey to consumers matters most. For example, if you find you need to move volume or some less-than-ideal inventory, focus your digital marketing and advertising efforts there.
Ansira understands the importance of sharing the correct message with the correct audience at the correct time. While Ansira works with a multitude of dealers, as well as the enterprise level of the OEMs, we also work in other industries like restaurants and retail. As such, this practice of pivoting for customer messaging is muscle memory at this point, since we’ve successfully supported clients like Panera and The North Face to ensure personalization for their customers made them feel seen and understood.
Q: With customer experience being paramount, how can dealers personalize and make their offering unique in the digital world of car shopping?
Houmis: At Ansira, our mantra is experience is everything. Providing the best online experiences for consumers is paramount, but if you’re in-store process isn’t aligned, then it’s all for naught. Online and in-store must work in harmony to maintain the equity you established during a buyer’s journey. Your competitors are looking for solutions to many of the same challenges, so it’s critical to ensure that the consumers engaged with your digital presence find value. As I mentioned, Ansira has the unique perspective of working across industries, which benefits our automotive clients. We understand that customers’ experience on websites, in their inboxes and in the store must feel cohesive to drive brand loyalty and continued sales. While buying a sandwich is not the same investment as buying a new car, dealers could take some cues from other industries – and personalization is a great place to start. A friend of mine says that cars are so similar today that buying one can become a toss-up for the consumer. Differentiating your dealership from others with things such as loyalty, value-add programs, your community involvement, and charitable efforts do have a major impact on where consumers choose to spend their dollars today.
Q: How does the approach to marketing change with luxury brands, specifically with a digital media plan?
Houmis: In my more than 30+ years of automotive experience, I’ve supported luxury brands in a variety of roles. The traditional brand concept of driving experience, performance, passion, or exclusivity are becoming outdated. To stay relevant in today’s market, luxury-auto marketers must preserve their original identity while embracing new perspectives like the younger generation, digitalization, and sustainability. Tailored and unique experiences are much more importance to affluent customers when they shop for luxury cars.
Dealers’ digital marketing should speak to those value-added aspects and market differentiators – things like vehicle pick-up for maintenance or vehicle delivery. Many luxury brands carry the traditional features of comfort, convenience, entertainment, and safety, and are packed with cutting-edge connectivity elements, autonomous-driving options, and the latest advancements in electrification technologies. Discerning buyers appreciate the creature comforts, but ease of doing business and subsequently servicing their cars with white-glove care needs to be highlighted across social media, advertising materials, and, of course, websites. Another area where there must be a tight plan is messaging throughout the lifecycle of the consumer; for example, it doesn’t make sense to e send a service special to someone who just drove a new car off your lot two weeks ago.
Q: There was a time when dealership marketing was primarily about “the deal.” Is this still important and what role does the offer or competitive pricing play in today’s dealership advertising?
Houmis: “The deal” today is more about affordability for the consumer and less about over-the-top messaging. Most consumers are seeking financing in some manner, which means that for those buyers, the total monthly payment is critical. Shoppers must see the value in your dealership offers and competitive comparison messaging. Consumers today have done their research before they contact your dealership – they’ve run the numbers, zeroed-in on a make and model and will be armed with not only your offer information, but what is being offered down the street.
Digital marketing messages today must be fluid. Adjusting messaging based on the current market will enable you to better connect with shoppers and promote competitive payments or value-affordability messages within advertising efforts. This is especially true of your core brands and volume segments. At Ansira, we saw the impact flexible messaging had on consumers during the height of the pandemic. While each state, city and county had different regulations for wearing masks and social distancing, Ansira helped dealers across the United States and in Canada share hyperlocal information about how and when they were open, what social-distancing protocols were in place and how to best engage customers who were either shopping for a vehicle or that needed service.
Q: How can dealership marketing be useful in retaining customers?
Houmis: One of the biggest challenges dealers face today is brand loyalty and customer retention. This industry is behind in regard to modern loyalty mechanics when measured against other consumer-facing industries.
Most dealers don’t have a single view of their customer base. Their data is scattered everywhere across their DMS and CRM systems, service schedulers and so forth. “CDP,” or customer-data platform, is the current buzz term. But the real question becomes what do you want to accomplish with a CDP? Some talk about conversion rates and cost-per-lead metrics, but a true CDP should be so much more – it should empower dealers to craft custom initiatives specific to their goals and strategies.
Ansira has worked with several clients on building their customer databases and CDPs and from our deep experience in auto and with customer analytics, we know for certain that dealers will not have success with an off-the-shelf CDP. Start with a data strategy to establish avenues for zero-, first-, and third-party data sources and lean on your data-analytics partner to determine if connecting those data sources with a CDP is right for you.
Your digital marketing mix of paid and owned efforts play an instrumental role in finding, capturing, retaining, and growing your consumer base and many of the elements that we’ve discussed today can be leveraged.
Q: How can dealership marketing be useful in retaining customers?
Houmis: Social media can be a powerful marketing tool, but a dealer should have a strategy and active community management. This is something that’s often overlooked, and one reason most social-media strategies fail. Community managers create strategies that assist with establishing their brand online, generate leads and ultimately drive sales. Almost all dealers use social media by utilizing one or more of the following:
• Organic: Publishes content and builds a following without any paid media behind it.
• Paid: uses paid media to gain interactions and reach.
• Reputation management: manages the conversations about your brand online; this can be done through search-engine platforms, ratings, and reviews
Success with social media is driven by a combination of all three components and dealers can showcase their inventory through visually appealing posts with high-quality images, videos, and descriptions. Dealers can run promotions, discounts, and campaigns to attract customers, engage with their audiences by responding to comments and messages and share testimonials and reviews to build credibility. Additionally, dealers can provide educational pieces to establish themselves as experts and collaborate with influencers to increase brand visibility. Paid advertising is utilized to target potential customers and generate leads.
ABOUT THE PANELIST
John Houmis, Senior Vice President, Client Engagement and Experience, Ansira
Houmis is a results-driven marketing professional with 30-plus years of experience in the in automotive industry. He has compiled expertise in digital marketing, strategy and customer-relationship management and has a proven track record in driving brand growth and revenue.