Finding a Path to Internet Marketing Success

computer monitor showing money

Dealerships have been trying to master internet marketing for over a decade now, but internet marketing is a moving target. Just when you think you have built a great online reputation, Google comes along and changes the rules; as soon as you’ve trained your sales staff to include at least 20 pictures with every listing, online consumers start demanding videos. This isn’t entirely new, technology has been changing and advancing since we invented the wheel, but the pace and scale is bigger than ever before.

Many dealerships have found success with internet marketing, but in order to maintain that success they need to stay abreast of technology and the new ways that consumers are communicating and consuming media. To help with that, we spoke to several experts in the field to get their thoughts on internet marketing and where it is headed in the future. Internet marketing is a broad topic and our goal is to bring you a variety of views so that you can find what works best for your dealership. To do that, we spoke with a broad swath of experts on internet marketing for auto dealers.

Our experts included:

  • Joe Castle, CEO of Castle Auto Group and founder and CEO of SOCIALDEALER
  • Matt Buchanan co-founder of Dealers United and a dealer principal of Sarasota Ford
  • Mike Martinez, CMO for DMEautomotive, Sean Wolfington, owner of Tier10
  • AJ LeBlanc, managing partner at Car-Mercial, inc.
  • Beth Latta senior product marketing manager, social products for Cobalt
  • Chris Reed, chief marketing officer for Cobalt/ADP Digital Marketing
  • James Fabin, senior product marketing manager, core products for Cobalt
  • James Kovacs, director of business development for ClickMotive.

This is one of the more exhaustive lists of experts we’ve interviewed for our magazine, but with such a broad topic, we wanted to bring you as large a range of opinions as possible to help you find what works best for your dealership.

Where have dealers found the most success with online marketing?

Not all internet marketing is created equal. What works depends on what industry you’re in and what you’re trying to achieve with your marketing. So the first thing we wanted to ask our experts was: where have the dealerships they work with found the most success online?

Mike Martinez told us that, “The most successful dealers are the ones who have integrated their online strategy with their successful direct offline strategy; and those who have also leveraged the significant intelligence on their customers’ behavior and preferences that online marketing provides them with access to, by analyzing and segmenting the data to understand who should receive which communications—and when they should receive them.”

Sean Wolfington agrees that connecting with the right consumers is critical to the success of online marketing. “The most successful dealerships have found the most success with digital marketing strategies that allow them to target consumers who are in the market now,” he explained. “They utilize mediums including search, online display and video, social media marketing, and targeted mobile marketing. Dealers get the best results when they send custom offers to in-market consumers. The offers drive consumers to a website that gives them all the information and converts more visitors to leads, phone calls and visits to the dealership that have a higher probability of buying and servicing, now and in the future. The best dealers tie all this together with an integrated strategy and message through all the different tiers of digital marketing.”

AJ LeBlanc also feels that dealers should have a consistent strategy that integrates the myriad of marketing channels available on the internet, because customers use a variety of different media. “The most successful dealers implement a complete digital marketing strategy employing all these techniques [banner ads, pre-roll video, social media marketing, adwords, etc.] each month,” he revealed. “Every car buyer uses a mix of all these types of media, so having a presence on each platform insures exposure to a larger prospective audience of car buyers. Having all your eggs in one basket never works out well, so using each platform on a consistent and regular basis has a better overall long-term positive return then just flip-flopping around form platform to platform each month.”

The idea that one kind of online marketing is what every dealership should be doing was something that Chris Reed also wanted to counter. “Cobalt’s research into online consumer journeys shows that no one media is a ‘magic bullet’—the key is a consistent presence in front of the prospect with display, retargeting, search and social media through their multi-month shopping process with aligned messaging,” he informed us. “Dealers who have the most marketing success think about their prospects first and what influences and messages are most effective in guiding them to their dealership. The trick is to understand where your prospects are travelling online and matching your marketing to their behavior in whatever media they are using.”
There are certainly many ways that dealers can market successfully on the internet, but when we asked James Kovacs where dealers were having the most success online he reminded us that, “For the most bang for the buck it is hard to argue against solid SEM [Search Engine Marketing] campaigns.” He also warned us though, “That the campaigns must be run by professionals that are trying to affect the bottom line, and not just trying to spend more. Every impression, click, lead, and sale should be measured and gauged so the campaigns can be fine tuned as needed. If an SEM campaign is run efficiently, it can offer a return that few other online marketing solutions can.”

Matt Buchanan agreed that the most cost efficient way of advertising on the internet is search engine marketing. “If we use (as we should) return on investment as the measure of success, then it’s clear that dealers have overwhelmingly found the most online marketing success with search engine marketing,” he informed us. “Nearly all other forms of digital advertising (like social and banners) are just like traditional marketing: I know 50 percent of my advertising is working, I just don’t know which half.”

The importance of lead generation was emphasized by Joe Castle when we asked him where dealers were finding success online. “The most success in online marketing has been in achieving direct response goals (lead generation) as opposed to branding, which we see the best success using adwords (both Google Adwords and Facebook Ads). They offer the best targeting options as well as tracking both response and conversion,” he told us. Castle also added, however that, “as a tool to build the size of our audience, which we define as potential car buyers that we can have conversations with, social media is showing tremendous results, specifically using Facebook and Twitter.

How can dealers take advantage of mobile marketing?

Smartphones have gone from novelty to ubiquity in just a few short years. This has left dealers and their marketing partners scrambling for ways to connect with consumers that are browsing on their phones and tablets instead of the more traditional laptop and desktop browsing experience.
After we got over the strange feeling we had from describing internet browsing on a laptop as traditional, we wanted to know what out experts thought that dealers could do to connect with mobile consumers.
James Fabin gave us some numbers about the rapid rise of smartphone use. “Mobile internet usage has grown far faster than most dealers expected. Over the last year there has been a 47 percent increase in smartphone internet users (ComScore June 2012). Mobile internet users are on track to surpass desktop internet users by 2014.”
He went on to explain that, “It all starts with ensuring you have a mobile optimized website, not just a mobile compatible website. Mobile optimized means that the website is focused on the task and information mobile internet users are searching for and there is no zooming in and out, everything just fits correctly on the screen: search live inventory with the ability to drill down for vehicle specific details, pricing, and specials; contact sales; contact service; learn when each of your departments are open for business; [and] find where you are located and get directions to your dealership.”

James Kovacs also pointed out that consumers don’t browse the internet on their smartphones the same way they do on their computers. “Mobile sites must be faster, touch friendly, and offer a quick path to conversion,” he reminded us. “People don’t browse very much on mobile devices; they are typically looking for information and are ready to take action. Within the next three years 50 percent plus of all internet traffic will most likely be done on a handheld device, so it is imperative that dealers are looking at the future and putting as much effort and money in mobile as in desktop.”

Mike Martinez also thinks that dealers’ sites need to be optimized for mobile users. He believes, however, that the best way to do that is to, “Get a mobile app. Get it now. The mobile app should be the focus for your mobile marketing strategy. Mobile sites are still important, but the mobile app is where the future is at. Be sure that your mobile site redirects customers to the mobile app. For example, you should deploy a feature on the mobile site that detects the phone type and offers to download and install the mobile app for the consumer. Apps are moving a mile a minute: Stay vigilant. Experiment, measure, redesign, repeat.”

No matter how you choose to connect with mobile consumers, Matt Buchanan advised dealers to, “Find a credible partner who truly understands the mobile space. Simply checking the mobile box when you set up AdWords is not enough; there are fewer ads slots available with mobile marketing, which means more competition for a very tiny space.” He also reminded us that, “the mobile customer is lower in the funnel, so traditional banner advertising that simply brands the dealership is often wasted on this segment.”

Optimizing your site for mobile users and creating apps for your customers with smartphones are important parts of the mobile marketing puzzle, but Joe Castle stressed that Facebook is a behemoth in mobile as well as desktop browsing. “Almost half of Facebook users access the site through mobile devices,” he noted. “Now that Facebook ads can be targeted specifically to mobile this offers dealers a great opportunity to market to their fans on mobile. Consumers post real time content of what they are doing and where they are headed, which includes buying autos and auto related services. Dealers can take advantage this by diverting a potential customer to their dealership at the moment of purchase decision.”
How has social media affected auto dealership internet marketing?

Social media is a big topic amongst dealers and their marketing partners right now as they try to figure out how best to use this channel to communicate with their customers. That’s not easy when the hottest trends in social media seem to change every week. “The major affect from social media for many dealers is that it’s caused so many of them to chase their tails as they’ve tried to leverage MySpace, then Facebook, then Twitter, then Foursquare and now Pinterest to help them sell cars,” lamented Matt Buchanan. “While there are reports of dealers selling cars via social media, the returns are still much better with virtually all other forms of digital marketing. That said, we believe dealers need to maintain a strong social presence that’s heavily focused on their communities and their teams, with very little selling.”

Joe Castle also feels that dealers need a presence on social media sites, “Because of sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+ the customer is now more than ever in the driver seat. During the research process the consumer now has the ability to really dig and identify which dealership they feel they should do business with based off of recommendations, other customers comments either good or bad, and overall transparence of that dealership,” which means dealers need to stay on their toes and satisfy their customers. But he added that, “Social has opened up a whole new world of opportunity for the dealer to identify and engage new prospects by building relationships and having conversations with the customers before they make a purchasing decision, which is priceless and not even possible in any other type of marketing.”

There certainly are opportunities for dealers to market to consumers with social media, but as Sean Wolfington pointed out, “Social media hasn’t changed how most dealerships market, but it has certainly changed how consumers shop and how fast ‘word of mouth’ spreads…when a customer presses one Facebook share button, 180 of their friends can see how happy or upset they are about their experience with your dealership and that has a bigger impact on a dealer’s reputation than their advertising. These customers can either be raving lunatics who spread negative info about the dealership or they can be raving fans who attract their friends and family in a way that was never possible before…with the click of a button that spreads information like wildfire, and has literally led to the overthrowing of governments.”

Mike Martinez agreed that social media can’t be avoided, so dealers need to have a plan for marketing and handling their social media. “Today, any dealership that does not include a social link (twitter/facebook, etc.) in all forms of communications—from direct mail to email—and who is not paying attention to what their customers are saying in the social-media sphere, and where they are saying it, is missing the boat,” he warned.

Beth Latta added that, “Social media can have the same impact as traditional and other digital media.” She cautioned however, “A common misstep in a successful social media strategy is the thought that anyone who is an avid Facebook or Twitter user is qualified to run a social media program. Social media is about conversation and engagement. If not correctly done, conversations become stale, defeating the purpose of continued engagement and dialogue with customers and prospects. As customers become more engaged with the dealership and get to know the people behind the business, they feel more loyalty towards them. Managing and optimizing an effective social media strategy requires long term commitment and expertise in social networking and content writing, so it adds a deeper layer of daily internet marketing to the mix.”

James Kovacs also invited dealers to be more involved with social media. “Many dealers are afraid to jump in, because they can’t see an immediate return,” he lamented, “but Social should be easy for dealers. Dealers have relied on being social and community oriented for decades, the only difference now is that it is online and not face to face…Dealers should adopt a solid social strategy so they can start to engage with a younger audience which accounts for roughly 40 percent of vehicle purchases today.”

We hope our experts have been able to give you some useful advice that you can put into practice at your dealership. If you have thoughts or comments please email and visit for more information and articles on how to help your dealership succeed in the twenty-first century.

Cody Larson


No comments!

There are no comments yet, but you can be first to comment this article.

Leave reply