Conquering Online Classified Advertising
It was not long ago that searching the classified advertisements for a car meant picking up a copy of the paper and flipping through pages and pages of tiny boxes of text that listed the vehicle make, model, maybe they price, and a phone number. Sometimes, if the advertiser chose to buy a few extra lines, those ads would include a short description with the vehicle’s color and condition and that was it. Newspaper classified advertising continued this way for many years, then came the internet and everything changed.
With the advent of the internet, new online classified sites, such as AutoTrader.com and craigslist.org, began to offer online classifieds with longer more informative descriptions and the option to upload multiple photos. At first many of the online ads were similar to the old newspaper classifieds, but forward-thinking dealers began to add more information and photos to their listings and consumers rewarded them with more sales and gross and the newspapers have been complaining ever since. Soon dealers across the country saw the value of online classifieds and began to shift the dollars they were spending on newspaper classifieds to online.
For consumers, the internet has become the number one resource for information about new and used vehicles. According to a February 2011 study conducted by AutoTrader.com and Polk, “Two-thirds of consumers rated the internet as ‘extremely helpful’ (score of ‘9’ or ‘10’ on a 10-point scale). In comparison, only about one-half of used and new vehicle shoppers rated a referral from a friend or family as extremely helpful and other sources (e.g., TV, radio, direct mail) scored much lower.” With such a large percentage of consumers using the internet to decide on their next vehicle, it is essential that dealerships have a strong online presence in order to succeed in the twenty-first century.
To be sure, part of a strong online presence is an effective dealership website that is easy to navigate and informative. Your website is your online dealership and most consumers get their first impressions of your business from visiting your site; however, it is not where most consumers start their search for a vehicle. In fact, according to the study by AutoTrader.com and Polk, “About half of buyers who visited a dealer site arrived at the site via search. This indicates that shoppers use search engines as a convenient way of looking up a dealer after that dealer has become a part of their consideration set.” For used vehicle consumers, third-party sites were especially important, because “seven of the 11 hours spent researching used vehicles occurs on third-party sites.”
One of the main reasons that third-party sites, and especially online classified sites, are popular with consumers is that they allow consumers to compare different makes and models of vehicles directly, without clicking back and forth between different websites. According to the AutoTrader.com/Polk study, “About 45 percent of new and used vehicle buyers use the internet to research vehicle pricing and to compare models across different makes.” Since consumers are going to be comparing the vehicles you sell directly to those of your competition, you need to make sure yours stands out and create value in the mind of the consumer. In order to do that, dealer classified ads need to include: photos, videos, and detailed descriptions.
Fortunately, most auto dealers have learned the importance of including photos with their online classifieds, but just one or two photos is not enough anymore; the ease of digital cameras has made consumers accustomed to seeing lots of pictures when they shop online. Five to ten pictures of every vehicle should be a minimum, but the more photos you include with your online classifieds, the better. This goes for both new and used vehicles.
The pictures need to be of the actual vehicle, not stock photos! This is important even if you're advertising new cars. Today’s online consumer can spot a stock photo from a mile away; your vehicle pictures need to be of the car for sale on your lot. If you're using stock photos, you might as well not be using any pictures at all. Your photos, however, don't need to be taken by a professional and you don't need to buy an expensive camera, even when you sell new cars. In fact, pictures taken by nonprofessionals have an air of authenticity.
When you're creating used-vehicle classifieds, include photos of everything, both good and bad. Consumers know that used vehicles will have some flaws; it happens to every vehicle over time. What matters is that you don't hide the defects. If the photos you place with your classified make the car look like it has been in a garage under a car cover for ten years, online consumers will just assume you're hiding something and move on to the next ad.
As access to broadband internet has grown across the country, consumers are watching more and more video online and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a thousand pictures. The best part is the digital camera you're using now to take photos for your online ads probably also takes video.
Placing videos in your classifieds is easy and not only creates value in the minds of consumers looking at them, but when you include proper meta-tags and descriptions with those videos, it also boosts your SEO score and steers more consumers to your dealership website.
Don't make your videos too long; one to two minutes is a good length. The video should start with a quick intro telling the viewer the name of your dealership and describing the vehicle make, model, year, and price:
“Hi, I'm John Smith with ABC Motors in Seattle, today we have a 2005 Ford Focus with 81,000 miles. Our price is only 7,700 dollars. Let me show you a little about this car…”
After the introduction, the video, like the pictures, should show consumers the positive and negative aspects of the car—show them the crack in the speedometer as well as the alloy rims. They will notice when they come to your lot to see the car; let them know when they look at the ad and it won't be a nasty surprise when they see the vehicle in person for the first time.
You probably don't need a study to tell you that consumers are searching the internet for vehicles, but even though 71 percent of consumers use the internet to research and find the vehicle they want to buy, the majority of customers still make their initial contact with the dealership by walking onto the lot. “Sixty-seven percent of used vehicle buyers and 69 percent of new vehicle purchasers establish initial contact with the dealer by walking into the dealership,” according to the Polk/Autotrader study.
It used to be common practice to create vehicle classified listings without price. Dealers wanted customers to call the dealership so that they could get them on the phone with a salesperson, who would try and convince them to come to the lot for a test drive. At the time, this made sense; with limited access to information, customers had to come to the dealership if they wanted to compare vehicles or features. The dealership lot is still the best place to sell a vehicle to a consumer, but with over two-thirds of consumers deciding which dealership to go to without ever calling or emailing it is imperative that dealers give them the information they're looking for online.
Your vehicle descriptions should include all the vehicles features and options. Much of this information can be gathered with a VIN decoder, but that is not enough. The internet is packed with vehicles for sale, if you want yours to stand out you need to tell a story. Make your description compelling. You can tell an anecdote about the previous owner, describe how fantastic the interior is, or tell them how smooth the ride is, whatever is appropriate for the vehicle your selling. The important thing is to show the customer something unique about the vehicle that sets it apart in the mind of the consumer.
Good customer service
A lot has changed in the last couple years when it comes to classified advertising. Instead of four or five lines in the newspaper, today's online classifieds can include hundreds of words, a plethora of pictures, and even video of the exact vehicle being sold. This has helped consumers feel more confident in the vehicles they choose and allowed dealers to connect consumers to the cars they're looking for. Certain things in the auto dealership industry are unlikely to change, however.
Consumers may research and find the vehicle they want on the internet, but they buy it from a salesperson. The internet can help move the consumer down the buying funnel, but it can't close the deal. That is still up the humans on the lot. When it comes down to it, this is still a people business. No matter how compelling your classified ad is with a great story, loads of detailed pictures and video, and an informative description, it still comes down to the salesperson to sell the vehicle to the customer. There is simply no replacement for good customer service.