Is your online strategy ready for the upturn? According to our experts, dealers who ignore the potential of the internet will be guaranteeing themselves a place in the slow lane when the good times return. Richard Aucock spoke to leading lights in the car business – here are his exclusive findings…
Things have been on hold, but when the customers start coming back, so too must visibility for your business. And now, more than ever, your website is your shop window. Get this right and you can best exploit the benefits of the upturn. So, how do you do this?
By first of all, says Motortrak’s David Cox, fully understanding the basics. All too often, staff turnover and the sheer pace of the business can leave those making the key internet decisions with too many unanswered questions.
‘It’s vital you thus satisfy the fundamentals – whether your site is visible, well integrated into your business, and functional.’ Cox’s Motortrak can offer the expertise – they’ve worked on both franchise, non-franchise and manufacturer websites, including Ferrari’s worldwide used car site – but if you don’t ask the questions in the first place, you won’t be sure where you need to start.
‘It’s easy to add value to websites, by getting all the basics in place. Many fixes are easy ones, which can add significant growth to your online business, without costing a penny. Only once all these are in place will we suggest you look to expand your site with the hi-tech features we’re constantly developing.’
Your customers, of course, will probably start with a search. Getting a good ranking in Google is paramount to the visibility of your firm. Electronic media consultants Viper Image Media can help here, by incorporating the tools to keep Google’s famed search ‘spiders’ crawling back to your site.
‘We automatically generate an XML Google sitemap for your site,’ explains partner Adrian Pitt. Don’t be scared. It’s technical – but need not be a concern of yours. Viper sorts it all for you. And what does it do? ‘Automatically tell Google when you add or remove a car – meaning every single car is plugged into the search engine network the second it goes live.’
As soon as you click go, that car is on sale. How’s that for real time?
This approach is unique, says Pitt – and works. ‘We offer a search engine marketing campaign on top of this: one car dealer bought a site off us three years ago, and went for a six-month SEO campaign on top of this. Even now, typing ‘Mercedes Bath’ into Google sees them nearly at the top of the results page.
That gets them there. But then what? Richard Lawton is an old friend of Car Dealer Magazine. And, through Really Good Domains, has also helped demystify the world of the web to car dealers. He’s in no doubt as to the importance of the medium.
It’s imperative you’re in there and up to speed, he says. TV and radio still have their place, but they’re both difficult to monitor and very expensive. ‘However, the average adult spends over an hour a day on the internet – and this is rising.’
It’s where most car buyers do their research nowadays. This is something, reveals Lawton, that they’ll take three months doing. Furthermore, the cost of the car is proportional to the time spent researching it.
As for those who, for example, withhold prices and mileages, you’re doing yourselves no favours. ‘The savvy internet researcher can be put off if you’re perceived to be holding information back.’ They’ll find it out in time, anyway – question is, will they bother to, or simply go to one of your rivals instead?
You must also keep a close eye on your website statistics. Now, chances are, these will show you that the majority of overall web traffic still goes to but a handful of websites. Such as Autotrader.co.uk, contracthireandleasing.com, and the likes. These guys benefit from search engine leads – which could make you think, well, why bother? What chance do you stand against them?
Well, every chance. Your aim should be to get on the first page of search results – and, with smart use of keywords, plus emphasis on your unique selling points and locality, you can ensure those who are buying will find you.
What’s more, says Lawton, why not hook into the big boys’ power – and advertise with them? ‘This vastly increases the amount of exposure your stock and brand receives.’ One company he knows of ONLY advertises on contracthireandleasing.com – and, despite this, completed more than 3,000 deals in 2008. That’s 60 cars a week! From a single ad partner. Albeit, the RIGHT ad partner.
If you’re a used car dealer specialist, of course, you’ll already know your cars outsell new ones, by more than 3:1. ‘People go to dealer websites to check out their used stock,’ says Bluecubes’ Stephen Cousins, firmly. Here, a good net presence goes without saying. But, with a broader market, comes far broader levels of competition.
It’s something that Ayo Samuel, national sales manager of Compucars.co.uk, fully backs up. You have no guarantees your car will be spotted, even if you do have a presence. ‘But, with advertisements placed on more than one website, the chances of generating enquiries is hugely increased.’
How to do this? Utilise a car sales portal such as his – Compucars. His advice is that used car dealers should not rely on just one source to market their cars. An internet user is never guaranteed to find your cars in a list.
‘The dealers who are succeeding and selling stock in this difficult market are the ones who are increasing their online advertising spend. And doing this both easily and cost effectively through Compucars,’ he says.
‘Dealers need to be shouting from the rooftops that they have the best cars at the best prices to capture the attention of customers.’ Advertising on Compucars – a top five website for sales enquiry delivery, no less – can help.
It does far more than just deliver you lots of leads, though. Actively helping dealers produce the best ads possible here is where Compucars’ monitoring services come into play.
‘We give comprehensive advertiser stats – showing, for example, the date, time and duration of all telephone calls,’ he explains. ‘We can also provide the caller’s number, how many times each individual car appeared in the search results, and even how many times it was clicked on.’
NO PICS = LOWER RESPONSE
That’s all thanks to the many tools at the site’s disposal, which can go as deep as you wish. Samuel can even point to numbers showing that adverts without images get a lower response: ‘Far lower. That’s why we allow all our ads to have multiple images. We can even hook into an image library, for stock photos of that exact car where no images are available.’
To help get your head around all this, most experts advise that, if you do want to go ahead, you start with an initial consultation. Guys such as Raphael Millin understand that it’s so important to do this, they won’t even charge you for it.
‘In it, we discuss what your business is, how you want your corporate identity portrayed, and how we can help you do this. We’ll discuss a budget, a timescale, see if your domain names are available, even show you our portfolio of work to help get the ideas flowing.’
Firms such as Spidersnet’s Autopromotor can do the lot – create the logos, scan in any artwork and images you already hold, write copy, create all the forms, and present it in a way that’s easy to understand and intuitive to use.
Worry if your website provider doesn’t promise to fully test your new site, get your full approval, offer to host it and train your staff into using it. This should all be part of what’s included in any deal – after all, your staff will have to run it, your customers will have to use it. Looking good is one thing, but being good to use is quite another…
You can even, as Car Dealer Web Design’s Mark Russell reveals, learn how to do it all yourself via online video tutorials. If you want to save money and get a car dealer website that looks professional then talk to him.
The site’s are fully controllable by you and, in partnership with HPI Dealer Exchange, let you send your cars automatically to the leading online sales channels like Auto Trader, eBay Motors and many, many others. And all for just £75 per month!
Morals are another consideration you must make. Stay with us, when we ask whether you’ve considered ethical SEO – because there’s money at stake. This is an area that the unscrupulous can exploit, as Silverdisc chief Alan Perkins warns. He’s one of the world’s LEADING search engine optimisers. And, the risk is, if you get found out, your good work is undone as well as the bad…
Search engine companies know when you’re trying to fool the system – and also understand that, if searchers trust them, they’ll return. As most web queries are generated via search, it means the industry is a cut-throat business… and, if you get found out as being unethical, spoiling that search engine’s reputation, you’ll get banned from it. Simple as that.
Silverdisc has used this expertise to develop highly advanced features to help better qualify those search leads, too. Take pay-per-click. Ben Myhall says Silverdisc has world-leading technology in this area. Which, ‘guarantees visitors who are highly qualified’.
‘We do this by taking a complete update of dealer stock every single day, so we are targeting at a model-specific level, not with simple generic PCC ads. This means we write highly relevant ads which virtually eliminate timewasters!’
Furthermore, Silverdisc will also take these Google searches to a highly specific landing page – ‘so car buyers don’t have to search again once they’re on your site.
In one click, they’ll be taken to, say, all the Vauxhall Astras in their price range, in their locality, and will be able to choose from them all with ease.’ In the cut-throat, time-poor mentality of internet search, such an advanced offer has proven benefits.
‘We’re sending customers who actually want to buy cars, directly to the cars YOU have in stock that fit their needs.’ PPC, perfected…
Perfect your net health, and customers will be more willing to show you their wealth. But how do you best opportunities this? James Tew is boss of Codeweavers. Which offers an impressive tool you can adopt, and help snare the growing number of customers likely – or very likely – to buy a car online.
‘And, when I say buy online, I mean doing the entire deal online,’ says Tew. ‘That figure’s growing all the time, too.’
In most cases, this just can’t happen today. Car dealer websites are not technically advanced enough. Certainly not the 24-hour salesman they should be. Why shouldn’t customers, for example, be able to use a car configuration tool from your website at 3am, to choose their next car?
Codeweavers can supply you with one – that does so much more. Including providing finance and insurance quotes!
This is stunning. ‘We have a system so you can show individual finance quotes for every car on your listings, automatically. What’s more, we can also show insurance quotes specific to that model, from four independent insurance providers – all the customer has to do is fill in a short one-page form.
‘Think about it – customers can instantly get monthly payments for every used car in stock, plus a yearly insurance cost for it. With fuel economy data there too, what else does the customer need to know to judge affordability?
‘And, as they can tailor it to their specific requirements – well, it’s the entire deal, presented on YOUR website screen.’
Given that they’re more likely to then buy finance from you, says Tew, it really is canny technology. He’s even ensured all the necessary statutory rights and distance selling regulations are obeyed, too.
It’s all technology you should be shouting to customers about. And, for your existing customers, there’s no better way of doing this than with a regular newsletter. David Whitchurch-Bennett of Nu Media Advantage says it’s the perfect communication tool, ‘so you’re always customers’ first choice’.
Utilising what car manufacturers also give you for free is another good way of boosting SEO. ‘A good way of getting fresh, keyword-rich content copy on your website is to link in with car manufacturer PR news feeds,’ adds Whitchurch-Bennett.
‘Mazda, for example, issues four or five of these a month – and they’re professionally-written news pieces that are jam-packed with searchable keywords. Most dealers ignore them as they don’t have the time to integrate them – but they’re perfect copy for SEO.’
When it comes to technology, you don’t need to stop there, either. Car Dealer Magazine was among the first to bring you news of one new feature for car dealers – a live video online presentation tool! Zype’s C It Now allows car dealers to speak with a customer over the telephone, while showing them a live real-time video image of the car.
It’s as simple as filming a car in detail, in response to what the customer asks. Punters asking about the condition of the seat trim, how easily the seats fold or what the sat nav system is like to use? You can show them, lingering for as long as they wish you to.
But that’s just one use of video you can incorporate. You should be doing this, as three quarters of internet users watch video online. Zype’s here to help the six in 10 who express a preference for professionally produced video, too. It all comes down to incorporating a video ‘channel’ into your website – where all the videos made by you live. Customers can hook directly into this, for a richer experience of your company.
You can even extend its use, too. Why not contact traders, for example, or salesmen? Why not use it to deliver training packages to staff? Or rally all those who supply to you? Once it’s there – and that’s something Zype will help with – the world of how it’s used is your oyster.
‘Car buyers are travelling further – we have hard evidence of this,’ said Zype’s Andrew Howells. ‘That’s because so many searches are now conducted over the net.’
They are more likely to visit if they are more sure about what they’re visiting. 100-mile trip, sight unseen? Not something many would willingly do. But, such a trip, to see a car they’ve already seen, live, in close-up? Which they’ve asked questions to a dealer about as they’ve explored? That’s the magic of C It Now.
Taking the video theme a step further, wouldn’t a video car ad itself be impressive, too? Filmed of the exact car, at your premises, then hosted on both your website and one of the country’s leading web portals, too?
Motors.co.uk can do that for you. Top Gear for YOUR cars. In short, centre on shooting video footage you can afford, automatically editing it, then loading it fast on to your website.
Dealers who use it say they love it, reports Motors.co.uk product manager Helen Rapp. ‘Customers have already seen the car they want to test drive or buy before they visit, so when they go into the showroom, they are serious buyers.’ Which, she says, makes conversion into sales easy.
All of which is filtered out to hundreds of website, automatically. Oh, and back to search again – those ads will be filtered on Motors.co.uk via a very canny on-site search engine the firm’s developed.
As for moving from virtual to real, web developer Bluecubes stresses how important your website is to generating physical showroom traffic. ‘We’re not trying to substitute the sales guys, but make their job easier by driving the traffic to them,’ says the company’s Stephen Cousins.
‘We often find that a successful prospect can be up-sold to, simply through the sales guys working their magic.’
One tool Bluecubes offers here is a ‘find me a car’ function. If you don’t have the car that person is interested in there and then, they can launch a find request. Then, Bluecubes’ systems will crawl your stock list whenever it is updated – and, when you take such a car in stock, fire them an email link with the details of the car. Automatically!
‘You get a highly qualified lead, and that person is back there on your website.’ It’s successful, too: of all the e-mail links such systems generate, 95 per cent are generally opened and responded to…’
You can even focus your website on the sort of cars you offer, and how you source them. Ex-Motability cars are rightly in demand from car dealers. That’s because they’re one-owner, low mileage and fully serviced. They sell great to customers, so the more you can get in, the better.
With MFL Direct, you’re now able to offer ALL customers the chance to buy one. How? Through My Virtual Showroom. This is a ‘virtual’ car forecourt, hosted by MFL Direct but branded in your livery. The premise is simple, explains the company’s Bart Day.
‘Let’s say Mrs Jones likes the Nissan Note, but not the ones you have in stock. No problem, you can tell her. Sit her in front of the virtual showroom, and she can choose from ALL the Notes we have in stock – there are dozens of them. She can flick through and pick one that takes her fancy.’
Clever. You can leave them to scan for 10 minutes, tell them to pop potentials in ‘my clipboard’, then go back and talk deals.
Ah, but hang on, you’re thinking. How do you work out profits here? Cleverly, MFL Direct puts jargon on each car’s page. A ‘dealer code’. Which just so happens to show profit margin on each car for those who can read it! So you can work out a deal there and then – as if the car was yours. But only commit to buying it if the customer hands over cash.
It’s genius. It enhances all the other services MFL Direct offers, such as the ability to target and buy back cars in your dealer group (meaning you can speak to your mate Bill in your sister group to find out all about it), to really offer a complete new source of cars.
The dealer-branded look to it all is the clever part. ‘How you explain where they’re coming from is up to you,’ says Day. Our compound in Scotland? Our sister site in another county? Even being up front, and drawing upon the many other benefits of Motability marketing? You decide. All the while, knowing exactly how much cash will be in it for you.
If you’re after a complete solution, from website generation to credit sourcing – and anything in between – Creditplus’ Shaun Armstrong is your man.
‘We can help car dealers be seen – we have nearly 80 phrases that rank in the top level for Google (type in ‘car loan’ to see what he means here…). It means they don’t have to run pay-per-click campaigns – we do this for them, by being so visible.
But he can also offer highly advanced customer provisioning tools. ‘It’s all about client capture,’ he says. Of every 100 people visiting your site, very few will actually buy. Our skill is ensuring we capture every potential buyer who visits.
A suite of tools at visitcars.co.uk showcases these skills. In short, car dealers can take the modules they would find particularly useful, and either integrate into their website, or get their web developer to do it for them.
These range from distance selling aids, to servicing tools – even to an affiliate programme, which can earn car dealers £120 for ever car loan they place. Here, for example, all you do is place Creditplus text links or banner advertisements on your site. Your own personalised tag at the end ensures any customers going to Creditplus are identified as being ‘yours’. You’ll be paid for every conversion into a sale.
Joining is free, you don’t have to do anything once you’ve done so, and you can monitor how much you’re making from it via a series of online resources.
Armstrong’s array can even stretch to managing the website for car dealers, though the Dealerplus system. This is a solution that, again, can be as hands-off or hands-on as you like.
If you really want to explore cutting edge media techniques, you should certainly be considering social media networks. As Whitchurch-Bennett says, there are a number of business social networks where you can register for free. Such as? ‘BT Trade Space is one,’ he says.
‘Also use online business directories, such as FreeIndex, Scoot and the like – and, if you also start to utilise forums, by answering people’s questions, and maybe even consider writing for online magazines, you’ll start to build a significant online presence and respectability.’
This not only keeps you in the eyes of car buyers, but also – crucially – pushes you further up the search engine rankings, by increasing the number of inbound links to your website. None of it has to cost you a penny if you’re savvy…
Getting such advanced systems in place shouldn’t stop with the front end of the website, either. If your online systems are so much more efficient, then you’ll need to ensure that the back end has the ability to handle all this extra demand. This is where Paragon can help.
The company’s ability to integrate efficient used vehicle processing facilities, for example, now give franchised car dealers the opportunity to access online all used vehicle stock – ‘live’. This means better buying divisions can be made, customer demands more readily met and, in time, used vehicle sales boosted.
Fiat remarketing chief Simon Wheeler is one such beneficiary of Paragon’s integration abilities. ‘Our aim was to appoint suppliers and adopt processes that reduce the time it takes to collect and prepare vehicles to a consistently high standard to then deliver into the Fiat network,’ he said.
‘With Paragon on board, (allowing used cars to be marketed more dynamically and efficiently), the entire network now has the tools they need to sell more used vehicles, quickly and more profitably.’
WHEN TIMES ARE TIGHT…
In the end, though, it often comes back to cost. Times are tight. Where can you get a stylish-looking website, that does it all, cheaply? Again, this is where Mark Russell from Car Dealer Web Design comes in. ‘The cost of our system, in comparison to competitors, is around 50 per cent less,’ he explains.
Russell can spend as little or as much time as you want, creating a website that’s as simple to use our and as technically-astute as you want. He can even do affordable search engine optimisation, all to help push you up the rankings.
It’s low-demand, effective and highly efficient. Proof of how successful it is? Visit CarDealerWebDesign.co.uk for a look-see…
‘Some car dealers tell me they just don’t know where all their customers have gone,’ says Silverdisc’s Ben Myhall. ‘But I do! They’ve all gone to Google!’ Every person we spoke to evangelised about the importance of a strong website – and stressed considerations need to stretch right back to the search stage.
The statistics don’t lie. If your website and internet presence isn’t up to scratch, neither is your business. The upturn may be coming, so make sure you’re fully geared up to take advantage in the area that REALLY matters.