Why Online Marketing for Car Dealers Keeps Failing: My Two Cents

By: Michael Cirillo   |   02 Dec 2016   |   Leave A Comment

The struggle is real.

There's this problem in the automotive industry that keeps getting swept under the rug. For some, it's under the rug intentionally. For others, there isn't another place for it.

It's a real problem, one that causes much debate.

 

When Things are Good, Invincibility is Real

When the internet first started rising in popularity among consumers, dealers were asleep. Times were good. The economy was steady, and people were buying cars.

That's the first part of the problem. When things are good, it's difficult to anticipate that they'll ever be bad. There is a false sense of invincibility that sets in when cash flow is regular and consistent.

But then the market crashed. People lost their jobs, their savings, their homes. Map markers that once represented car dealerships on Google maps began to disappear. Long-time, family-owned operations closed their doors forever.

While all of this was happening, consumer behavior shifted. Internet usage spiked, and e-commerce websites like Amazon, eBay, and others took over. With each new website came an increased sophistication in how consumers used the web to acquire information and make purchase decisions.

 

It’s Like the Movie “Encino Man”

This is where the second part of the problem came into play. Tough financial times woke many business owners (including dealers) up to the fact that things had to change.

Since things changed while they were asleep, they woke up to a new world.  That created this false perception about the internet that continues to cast a shadow over the industry to this day; that the Internet moves so fast and there is no way to catch up. That's not true. Things just started moving forward when nobody was paying attention.

It reminds me of the movie Encino Man, starring Brendan Fraser (whatever happened to him, btw?). As a caveman, he gets frozen in ice for thousands of years. It’s not until the 1990’s (when the movie was filmed) that he’s uncovered while Dave (Sean Aston) and Stoney Brown (Pauly Shore; another disappearing act) are digging up space for a pool in the backyard.

The rest of the movie is about the caveman learning how to live in a modern world. Dave and Stoney try and pass him off as a foreign exchange student to cover up his neanderthal-ic bewilderment.

Panic for dealers set in and a new breed of 'the vendor' was born. New tech companies started emerging left, right, and center and began to prey upon the ignorance of the industry.

 

The Sad News

Dealers aren’t neanderthals and can’t be passed off as foreign exchange students. Moving on...

 

“We Struck GOLD-ish!”

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that intentions were negative at the beginning. I don't even think they are negative today. Those early tech companies started by providing a solution that bridged the gap between where the consumers had already advanced to and where the dealers currently found themselves. It was like the California gold rush of 1847.

As the market became more saturated with tech vendors, differing opinions began to swell. The dealers didn't know who they should listen to for advice. The fresher pitch and competing prices led dealers to switch providers over and over again.

Each switch added a new layer of contamination to the dealer's online presence and marketing objectives. Old objectives got rinsed out with the wash of the previous provider, and many loose ends were in the wind.

As you can imagine (or have likely experienced first hand), confusion levels rose. Dealers lost track of the reputable sources of information because everyone had failed them. Not to mention, the competitive climate became more like a shark tank.

 

A Website is a Website is a Website

The misconception about the real capabilities of tech was solidified; that a website alone would help dealers generate more leads and sales. Today, the same story gets told as our industry's website vendors spew their canonized script to dealers; thus the misconception about the web is perpetuated.

But like I said, when things are good, it's difficult to foresee a time when things get bad. Many of our industry's vendors fell asleep during their 'gold rush' and slowly stopped cross-referencing their growth to the original problems they set out to solve.

Panic set in. Vendors started resorting to saying anything and everything to keep the business from their competitors. It got personal (for some reason), rather than taking a close look at the toxicity of the industry and aiming to change it.

 

Greed

When I talk to dealers and ask what their number one priority is, the answer is almost always, "we need to make more money."

I'm sensitive to the fact that this could be due to the economic downturn of 2008, which has caused many people to feel the financial pinch.

I'm also sensitive to the fact that cash is essential to running a business. None of us are running non-profits.

Our industry is highly regulated which can cause undue stress for the dealer. Money tends to solve many of the stresses imposed upon them.

But rather than acknowledging that consumer behavior has changed, and rolling up our sleeves to do something about it, we complain about change.

We complain about how much it will cost. We complain about how hard it will be. We complain that we don't know what to do. We complain that consumers have become needier.

We continue to switch providers thinking that it will make a difference. We continue to look for the easy way out and as such become attracted to the shiny new objects dangled in front of us. Doing so only contaminates our digital presence even more.

 

Just Give Me the Dang Car!

There is a piece to the puzzle that has remained the same over the years. Consumers want to buy vehicles. They want to have a good experience and want a trusting relationship. They want to be sure that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely.

Can you blame them? Those are the same things all of us want. Nobody likes feeling like they got ripped off.

After all of the consumer research on sites like Edmunds, Trader, Kelly Blue Book, or Cars.com, they want to know that the dealership they are getting referred to is going to help enrich and enhance their life.

Dealers have surrendered their entire ability to educate and build trust with the market to third-party sites, rather than aiming to build confidence and educate the market directly.

 

Time to Get Busy

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Turning things around and providing meeting consumer expectations online is going to require work. A lot of it. With the amount of digital contamination that has taken place over the years, dealers have to roll up their sleeves and get busy.

They will need a clear objective and stick to it. No more flip-flopping. Success is found by staying focused. FOCUS = Follow One Course until Successful.

Focus ZERO energy on things that don't matter. Everyone just needs to stop 'oohing and awing' at the next shiny thing that comes across the desk. Stop getting distracted by side-tracks disguised as opportunities.

I'm well aware that this might sound like a grim report. Heck, I've hesitated writing it several times but felt that unless we understand how we arrived at our current location, it's going to be difficult to move forward.

 

Now That Things Are Awkward Between Us, Where Do We Go From Here?

My intention in writing this is to raise awareness about how we’ve arrived where we are today. The hope is that dealers will reverse engineer their journey to success by marketing in a way that attracts, engages, and converts high-quality vehicle buyers.

This happens in a few simple steps:

 

1. Identify a clear objective

Without knowing where you want to end up, it will be impossible to get anywhere. Your objective will highlight a series of actions that must be taken to get from point A to point B.

Always make sure that your objective includes making the consumer the center of attention. We all know that a foundational business practice is supplying a demand. Today it’s easier than ever to know what consumers want and how they want it.

 

2. Build trust and authority

Consumers want to be educated and informed. They want to know that their purchase was the right decision to make.

On the flip side, they don’t want to feel like they’ve been taken advantage of or cheated.

The best way to build trust and authority is to be the source of information. Content marketing is a powerful way to answer their questions and build a relationship before they even pick up the phone or walk on the lot.

If you’re running short on content ideas, check out my previous post where I provide 25 blog topic ideas.

 

3. Audit your current marketing vendors against your objectives

Are they helping you achieve your goals? Are they all talking to one another to provide you with a unified approach? More importantly, do you have someone in-house or an agency that knows your vision and can act as the liaison between all of your third parties?

If there are services that don’t align with your objectives, or that are pulling you off your chosen path consider giving them the 86. I know that sounds harsh, but this is your business and you want to succeed!

 

4. Measure, Rinse, Refine, Repeat

Making sure that Google Analytics is setup properly, is crucial to your success. Every move you make online should be tracked.

Review your data to find out what’s working and what’s not working. Identify ways that you can improve so that you can keep moving forward. Rinse out what doesn’t work, refine what is working, and repeat this process over and over again until the end of time.


The market has evolved, but it’s not happening as rapidly as we all think it is. That’s the false perception that comes from not having a clear set of goals, and a plan for achieving them. I can’t stress how important it is to set your target and stick with it long enough to get an accurate reading on its effectiveness. Beware of sidetracks disguised as opportunities. Consistency and data-driven decision-making will position your dealership for greater success moving forward.

 

Michael Cirillo Author and Speaker

Michael Cirillo

Michael is the CEO and fearless* leader at FlexDealer. An enthusiastic team chearleader and defender of transparent business practices, he relishes long motorcycle rides and big ideas. As a bestselling author and keynote speaker, Michael works with dealerships of all sizes as well as fortune 100 and 500 companies to rise above the clutter and dominate the web. When he's not playing 'dad' to three crazy kids, he's shooting the breeze with industry leaders on his internationally-embraced podcast, The Dealer Playbook.

(* notwithstanding large insects)

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