After a very difficult 2009, the majority of auto dealerships and other small businesses now have some hope of emerging from the sales doldrums of 2009. Some 86 percent of small business owners expect 2010 revenues to be equal to or higher than 2009 figures, according to research firm, Ad-Ology. Despite that glimmer of confidence, however, most small business owners don’t plan to increase their marketing budgets in the near term. In a November 2009 survey of small business owners called the Merchant Confidence Index, 48 percent of respondents said they expect their marketing expenditures to remain stable over the next three months, while just 27 percent expected to increase their marketing spend.
Just because you don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on marketing and advertising for your dealership doesn’t mean you have to sit back and hope for the best in 2010. In fact, there are many free online marketing methods auto dealers can use to connect with potential customers. Below are eight proven marketing strategies you can use to boost customer acquisition and increase sales in 2010—which will cost you only your time.
1. Create a simple, clean website. There are dozens of self-service website creation services, such as Weebly, BlinkWeb, and Squidoo, which allow non-technical users to create simple, functional sites for free. Your site should include key words about your business so that people looking for your products or services can find you.
2. List your business on all free directory sites available to you. MerchantCircle.com, Google Local Business Center, Angie’s List, Yahoo! Local, Yelp, YellowPages.com, SearchLocal, and SuperPages are some of the online business directory services that allow businesses to create a free listing. If the site already lists your business, you can “claim” it by adding more details to the listing, such as your company website URL, a map, phone numbers, or business hours.
3. Use email to stay in touch with your best clients/customers. You likely already have the email addresses of your best clients or customers, so use them! An email newsletter is a great way to connect with your loyal customers. Create an email that includes a quick update on new models, incentives, service and maintenance discounts, and perhaps a printable coupon or promotional code. You can also add an image, a link to your website, a video you’ve posted on YouTube, or a link to your business directory page that includes lots of positive customer reviews.
4. Create business pages on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. Social networking is here to stay, so your dealership needs to join the fray. Start by creating a Facebookbusiness page and a Twitter account in your dealership’s name; both are free. If you have video content or commercials about your business, create a free “video channel” on YouTube. You can even do quick profiles of your salespeople or have satisfied customers participate in on-the-lot interviews about their positive purchasing experience with your dealership and post clips to your YouTube channel. Make sure to encourage customers to sign up for your pages by printing your Facebook address, Twitter handle, and YouTube channel name on all business materials.
5. Get creative with promotions. Everyone loves a bargain, and people are increasingly price sensitive after recently living through one of worst recessions in decades. Try offering different types of promotions; downloadable and printable coupons people can bring to the dealership or service center: online coupon codes redeemable for a one-time discount, a 10 percent off coupon for signing up for your email newsletter, or Facebook Page, a refer-a-friend discount, or a discount for writing a review of your business on a directory site like Yelp or MerchantCircle. You can promote these discounts via free or inexpensive advertising options, such as your email newsletter, in-store banners, Twitter, and Facebook.
6. Search online for all businesses like yours. Use Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other search engines to find other dealers in your city (and in other areas) to get a sense for what marketing tricks your competitors are using. Check out their social networking pages and their websites, and try searching for their latest promotions. Sign up for their email newsletters. Armed with this free competitive intelligence, you can see what’s worked for dealers you admire and fine-tune your own marketing strategies to compete with them.
7. Show your expertise. There are many sites where experts can provide answers to people asking questions about anything under the sun. Yahoo Answers, MerchantCircle Answers, and LinkedIn Answers are some of the most popular question-and-answer sites. Search all of these sites for questions related to the cars you sell or general automotive purchasing questions, and then provide answers or advice to them. Offer thoughtful, expert advice people can really use; that’s great PR for your business in and of itself.
8. Create some online marketing videos. Most people prefer to “see” something rather than “read” something—so create some videos for your business! There are several sites, such as Jivox and Spotzer, where you can create simple marketing videos for free using stock footage, then add your company’s URL, phone number, address, and clickable coupons. You can also shoot marketing videos using an inexpensive handheld camera, and then polish them with free online editing tools like JayCut. Post your videos on your Facebook page, on YouTube, and use them on your website and in your email marketing campaigns.
Auto dealers are a creative and hard-working bunch, used to doing a lot with few resources. In 2010, take the time to invest in the growth of your dealership, implementing a few creative marketing strategies that deliver real results in return for just a little elbow grease.
Darren Waddell is VP of marketing at MerchantCircle, the largest social network of local business owners.