Hurricane Harvey Made Us Go All In on Digital Marketing . . . and We Had a Record Month

Texas dealer Dale Early says, “Even though we spent much less on marketing in September, our leads more than doubled”


Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area in late August as a Category 4 storm, dropping more than 40 inches of rain in four days, resulting in widespread flooding and more than $200 billion in damage.

Silsbee, Texas, less than 100 miles from Houston, escaped the brunt of the storm, but residents still suffered from flooding and widespread power outages.

We closed our dealership, Hyundai of Silsbee, for several days and had significant cleanup to do afterward, but overall escaped relatively unscathed compared to our neighbors in Houston.

A marketing challenge

Power was still an issue in the area for weeks, however, and that meant that many of our traditional avenues for marketing—including television, radio, and newspaper ads—were off the table temporarily. In an effort to keep leads coming in, we decided to use the channels available to us, which were all digital.

Until then, about 35% of our marketing had been digital—a requirement to get co-op funds from Hyundai. A move to 100% digital made me very nervous. I expected our lead counts to suffer because traditionally, the bulk of our leads had come from radio ads.

But I was in for a surprise: Even though we spent much less on marketing that month, our leads more than doubled, from 250 a month on average to more than 600 in September.

We had a record month for sales and profits, and I think it was because we were more effective with our ad spend.

After things returned to normal in the Houston area, I had the opportunity to revert back to our old marketing ways, focused primarily on radio and TV. And I did shift some dollars back, but now, the split is roughly 80/20 in favor of digital.

Marketing gumbo

I think of my dealership’s marketing mix like gumbo—we experiment with different ingredients to see what works. I’m still doing that, but now with more experiments weighted toward digital.

As we’ve become more adept at digital campaigns, we’re also doing more to develop and nurture existing customers and older leads, including implementing a platform to automate campaigns—a move that’s saved me a lot of time, improved our marketing effectiveness, and helped us retain more customers.

We’re still learning. The technology moves and changes quickly, which is both scary and exciting. Digital certainly represents the future of dealer marketing, and while I was forced into this position by Harvey, now I wouldn’t go back: The targeting and measurement aspects of digital are too good to give up.

My advice for other dealers:

  • Get out of your comfort zone. When you have used traditional media as long as I have—30 years—there is a tendency to stick with what you know. Hurricane Harvey forced me out of my comfort zone. If you feel like you’re in a marketing rut (e.g., if leads are flat month to month), you probably are.
  • Educate yourself on digital marketing options. There’s no doubt that digital is the future for dealer marketing. You must begin to experiment if you aren’t already. Be open to learning—it’s too easy to say “no” to what you don’t understand. Meet with a lot of vendors and ask questions. As the saying goes, the only stupid question is the one that’s never asked.

  • Find experts you can trust to help guide you. We have two great local agencies and our marketing automation vendor helping us with our transition to digital. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when there are experts who can share their knowledge on automotive marketing.
  • Not everything will work perfectly the first time. Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the prince—know that you’ll have to experiment a bit to find what works best for your dealership.

We were forced into this change to a greater emphasis on digital marketing by circumstances outside of our control. Most dealers will have the chance to make this transition on their terms—so own it.

Dale Early, dealer principal at Hyundai of Silsbee in Silsbee, Texas, has 30-plus years of automotive experience. Before becoming the owner of Hyundai of Silsbee, Dale was the owner of two previous dealerships for more than 25 years. Dale tackled the digital transition with the help of Outsell, which drives more revenue for auto dealers by transforming how they engage consumers throughout their individual life cycles.

Dale Early

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