Automotive Digital Marketing

Professional Community for Car Dealers, Marketing, Advertising and Sales Leaders

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Vincent: How about a dog?
Jules: I don't eat dog either.
Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
Jules: I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they're definitely dirty. But a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way. *


If you immerse yourself in the discussion topics and blogs on the popular Internet car dealer sites (Dealer Refresh, ADM, Driving Sales, Kain Idea Exchange, etc.) you might soon believe that the solution to all your puzzles and frustrations lies in acquiring more site apps, buying more vendor services, and devoting your all to mastering the conundrum of social media sites.


I think our collective obsession with outside solutions comes about because, as an industry (and as individuals) we forget to remember that, in order to communicate with people, one must first have a message. Of course, if Marshall McLuhan is to be believed, the media is the message. And since our media is websites, web apps, emails and IMs, it's understandable that we should fall into believing that the more websites, web apps, email and IM products we buy the more successful we will be at communicating.

But this is not always so. What most of us end up with is a well intended but, ultimately, clumsy collection of sites, apps and services that, in the end, does not add up to a very compelling message. Yes, the media is the message, but we overlook the fact that mediums by definition must have content to convey. And that takes us right back to that popular declaration from the days; “Content Is King.”

But what is content?

There are core content components required of every dealership's Internet presence. (Your website must feature your inventory, for example. Map and directions to the store is another). These things are imperative and all dealer sites have them. But the true content solution is not the physical features described above. These items are not really content, they are simply store fixtures. True content is your differentiating message.

Your differentiating message emanates from two sources. The first is your business model: what do you do that other dealers in your area do not do? (If anything). The second is where media comes into play: how are you presenting and expressing your store's story to the public? Put another way, 1). you've gotta have a story to tell, and then 2). you've gotta tell it in a memorable way.

Example: my own employer prides itself on being an atypical car dealership. We have a no-pressure straight-up type of store that treats customers with intelligence and respect. According to company lore, that’s what we do that makes our business different from the other same-brand franchises in our area. This is a key component of our differentiating business model.

But does our store tell its differentiating story to prospective and current customers via our websites, emails and IMs? No! Nothing in our online presence conveys that we are a no pressure straight-up type of store that treats customers with intelligence and respect. This is a huge disconnect and a huge opportunity lost. We have three websites and all three have store fixtures aplenty, but no actual content, i.e. there is no differentiating message. Our Internet Sales success derives from the fact that we have a large inventory and an experienced, hard working sales staff. Imagine how good things could be if we also delivered our differentiating message online!

Here's examples of two courageous dealers who 1). have a differentiating business model, and 2). tell that story to the public in a unique and engaging way.

Check out this site: Suzuki of Wichita.

Are these guys having fun? Do we like them? Do we want to go to their store and be with them? Do we want to buy a car from them? I know I do! (BTW - they claim to be the highest volume new Suzuki dealership in the USA – and they are only 2 years old. So it must be working, eh?)

Now, put on your eye safety goggles and try this one: Ling's Cars.

Is this lady fearless or what? Have you ever seen a dealership site as outrageous as this? Is it ugly? I guess so! Graphic design professionals on both sides of the pond are racing to be the one who condemns Ling's site the loudest – but they totally miss the point. Ling’s business model is unlike any other in Europe or the US and her website is unlike any other on the planet. Oh yeah, and her business is booming.

We are not all meant to be wild and crazy like the dealers above. But we do all have something to say and the opportunity to say it. The goal is not to be like somebody/everybody else, the goal is to be like nobody else. Just forget everything you know or have been told about how a car dealer should look, act, and behave on the Internet and ask yourself, “How would I want my store’s information presented if it was being presented to me?” If the answer that pops into your head scares you because it doesn’t look, act or feel like anything you have ever seen others do before, do it now! You might be touched with genius.

As Jules said, personality goes a long way.

* © 1994 Miramax Pictures

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Comment by Trace Ordiway on January 5, 2010 at 10:20am
Hi Ling! Thanks for the kudos. Nice talking to you again.

Comment by Ling Valentine on January 4, 2010 at 11:44pm
Hi, I am Ling (from LINGsCARS mentioned in blogpost).

This is a great article. I am interested in that last comment about BMW, as I have legal letters every week from BMW UK trying to get me to stop offering their cars. They have forced me to remove logos and pics and constantly threaten legal action. Yet I lease loads of new BMWs! I hate the way that people are being forced to conform.

The whole point of the web is to interact with customers - not many car dealers do this. Every site can be so different, but most seem to be the same boring clones.

That Witchita Suzuki site looks really great, I am sure customers do not click away. Me - I polarise visitors, for every one who "hates" my site, another loves it. Casting the widest possible net seems to mean being ultra-boring. No need for that, it is good to dare to be different. I count Seth Godin as a good friend who constantly urges making a difference, but most car manufacturers force dealers to make no difference at all.

So sad. Anything is possible.

Comment by VJ on December 28, 2009 at 7:57pm
@Trace, brilliant post. And yes, the people inside the "brick and mortar" locations are the last line of defense to make or break a deal. In regards to the websites, I am glad that your progressiveness during your Subaru days could show you and your peers that a Cobalt website does not have to be "cookie-cutter". You actually have the opportunity to create far more than 1700+ different variations with an existing website, which still allows you as a dealer be creative on your web exposure ambitions and still allows to be compliant with your OEM's requirements.

The owner from Century BMW shouldn't have actually dropped his "since 10 years" installed website, because he'd have been still be able to maintain this particular website as his No.1 choice. BMW did not pressure to my knowledge their dealer franchises (being myself a BMW dealer until October 2009, I was aware what was coming and knew how BMW wanted the integration to be performed). Every BMW dealership has still the option to maintain their current contracts with all their other vendors. The BMW desired solution would be running parallel as a) a secondary URL or b) as a primary dealer website.

Being myself German, and knowing about the German Car Manufacturers and their Branding methods in Europe, it was just a question of time, when BMW N/A (like MINI prior) saw the need to take over their all-in-all branding methods here in the United States. BMW (and of course other non domestic OEMs) spent over the last decades billions of marketing dollars to make out of a German BMW "the Ultimate Driving Machine" and/or a "BMW Joy Sales Event". Even prior to BMW's decision to funnel their Web-Presence efforts in clear defined regulations this year, your mentioned BMW Website Guidelines existed already in 2006/2007, only with the difference that nobody really knew what was in them.

Keep in mind; a dealer website is still only a small portion about what you as a dealership can do, to get your message out. Do not underestimate the value your SEO campaigns, Video-Workarounds, Ownership Email Marketing, SEM and of course Social Media activities. But, as @Keith has mentioned...PROCESSES in a dealership are the ammunition, which actually will "strike" a deal. The Internet will provide your just with the barrel, holding your bullets (processes) in place.

@Tom...your website is phenomenal. Your branding fantastic and you created a punch-line, which is now sticking in my head..."" - I love it...

I wish you all a Happy New Year.
Comment by Keith Shetterly on December 27, 2009 at 12:42pm
Tom, excellent process approach, and congratulations on "getting it". The F&I turn was commonly used in Saturn, still, and that was a problem. The "volume" approach you pursue is what is going to make your business, and you present yourselves on the web in a manner that is very attractive. By that I mean that we all know there are many folks who would rather not go to a dealership but accept it as part of the process, and there are some that are high dealer-phobes, as well. Whether your customer is a true dealer-phobe or just a regular "Joe", though, haven't you described what a typical consumer would choose if given that choice? Yes! The true opportunity of the Internet for the most vehicle sales is not SEO, SEM, Social Media, PPC,or a website--it's in a process that is aimed at doing just what you're describing: Give The Customer What They Want, A Great Product at a Fair Price. The Internet is the vehicle to present yourself as exactly that.

I'm reminded, again, of the pre-owned titan Texas Direct Auto, #1 eBay Dealership doing several hundred million dollars of business now. It's web presentation is antiquated, but Rick Williams wasn't a car guy--he just designed a process he, as a consumer, would be comfortable with, and--instead of investing in SEO or SEO to drive folks to his store on the Internet--he just hooked his store to an existing Internet "mall": eBay! His processes still enable his business, even as eBay's look and feel ages considerably and he's tied to that.
Comment by Keith Shetterly on December 27, 2009 at 12:11pm
@Tom: AND we have removed the F&I department entirely. Very interesting. Can you elaborate, please? I note your profile includes BHPH, as well, is that out? And great points about the business change--how funny it is, with my Saturn background, to see how far ahead that retail effort was for "non-commission". You've taken it to the next level, hat's off to you--Thanks!
Comment by Trace Ordiway on December 24, 2009 at 9:29am
What I'd point out is that we're finding that dealership websites are not so much marketing as the First Line of the Customer's Service and Sales Experience

Ain't that the truth! The customer sees your website lo-ong before they see your physical store.

As long as your sticks n' bricks store is clean and well maintained who cares if it is a palace? But if your website is a dog..... bye bye positive first impression.

Funny thing, too: a killer website is a helluva lot cheaper to build and maintain than a sticks n' bricks store.
Comment by Keith Shetterly on December 24, 2009 at 9:06am
For marketing, "Content is King" is not just a truth from dot com days, it was true when radio, TV, PCs, and Internet browsing went past the "hobbyist" to the consumer. That market penetration--and the marketing vehicle they've all become--was and is driven by the consumer wanting content. Lucy and Ricky sold more TVs than any manufacturer's sales efforts did in the 50's.

And that's what's evident on both the sites you submit: They grab you, visually, with a very unique content presentation.

On the other end, the OEMs here are pushing for a homogenous web experience and seek to control it more and more through co-op fund requirements, etc. And that experience is content-based, whether it's video or not, and it will be boring. The 500 pound gorilla sits where it wants, and we'll all have to face that, no matter the legions of consultants pushing social media and SEO.

And, so, Jules is right, as is Ling, and Suzuki of Wichita, as are you, but it's still content that we worry about.

What I'd point out is that we're finding that dealership websites are not so much marketing as the First Line of the Customer's Service and Sales Experience. And a short video walkaround (30-40sec max) WILL help sell the car once they get to your site, for example, but if they can't find it . . . and how did they get to your site, anyway? We spend a lot of talk and effort on SEM/SEO, but then find that the majority of website hits are still from searches . . . on the dealer's name. Is that for service? Is that for sales? Is that a false statistic because our SEM/SEO efforts are so lame that those search engine hits just don't happen?

Regardless, once they arrive at the site, my hat's off to the Suzuki of Wichita folks. They understand what that visitor wants, and they are wayyyy ahead of that game. I hope that Suzuki stays out of their hair about their site for a long time to come.

And Merry Christmas everyone!
Comment by Trace Ordiway on December 24, 2009 at 7:50am
Ouch, that is bad news.

I had a Cobalt site a couple of years ago when I worked at a Subaru store. It was like all Cobalt sites, and everyone in the department griped about it at one time or another, but I discovered that I could actually do a lot of personalizing of the site by building custom pages and inserting them behind the Cobalt header and footer. And Subaru, bless its heart, actually encouraged me to do so.

Sounds like BMW will not be encouraging its dealers to do that.
Comment by Brian Pasch on December 24, 2009 at 6:21am

Your post comes at a perfect time since I was considering writing an article about the current move to force all BMW dealers to adhere to their website design guidelines. My first car dealer client, Circle BMW in New Jersey, always had a unique website, not to the degree of these two examples, but it was home grown and different.

The other day the owner gave in to BMW pressure for conformity and junked his custom site of 10 years for a Cobalt designed BMW site. This design was an exact match to BMW USA; BMW is pushing Cobalt as a solution with a free 3 month trial.

I found a copy of the guidelines from BMW which I have attached. It goes into painful detail about font size, margins, spacing on forms, etc. The specs are so tedious that most small website vendors handling BMW accounts would possibly consider just allowing Cobalt to take their business.

So if content and messaging is key for car dealers, it looks like they will have a small window to do that online.

When you read the BMW documents they have a clear perspective that they are in charge of branding. The BMW content message must be uniform and consistent with the manufacturers website. There is no room for real individuality in these documents because photos, fonts, color and even the navigational menu is locked down.

I'm not sure about this mandate but it mirrors their mandate on print ads and billboard designs if a dealer wants to get coop money. I understand brand consistency and messaging...but the web is all about diversity and individual expression.

I wonder when the Twitter and Facebook rules will be published?
BMW Website Guidelines Document

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