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How Digital Marketing is Changing the Car Business

Joe Tarell, Performance Improvement Consultant
by Joe Tarell, Performance Improvement Consultant

Ask 25 people you know how they feel about buying a car.

Ask them to just give you a one word feeling, a straight off the hip emotion that they associate with the experience. What the majority will tell you, and I know because I do this constantly, is they feel fear or anxiety or apprehension or trepidation…depending on the size of their vocabulary.

With the evolution of digital media, the number of people feeling this and the amount of time they spend afraid is gradually diminishing. The Internet has opened up a wealth of information to the car buyer, and that information has brought a new sense of comfort and confidence.

In the early days of the Internet boom, many car dealers lamented the consumer’s access to information. But today many are embracing it. Dealers now recognize that the car shopping experience can be a scary process and are taking steps to try to change that.

Even though attitudes on both sides of the shopping equation have evolved, shoppers still bring friends to help them negotiate, still feel anxiety about working with sales people and still aren’t sure if they got the best deal. Here’s a cautionary tale that might help illustrate my point.

A friend recently bought a car and I asked her to describe her experience. She was sure that she got a good deal on her trade and a good interest rate because she did her research online prior to driving to the lot. She also had exhaustive research on which make and model was right for her. She visited two stores and drove home in a new CUV from the second store. But that’s the short version of her story. Here’s the real version.

She left the house ready to buy, but was concerned about the negotiation process. So she brought along a friend she referred to as her CFO. The store she visited first hyped themselves online for providing “great pricing, friendly service and top dollar for your trade.” However, the salesperson immediately tried to get credit information from her and began questioning her research on the value of her trade. She said she felt uncomfortable from the moment she walked in and kept nudging her friend who was trying to negotiate with this “jerk” (her word), to leave as fast as they could.

She knew of another store close by that she liked from her web search. They were her second choice for two reasons: 1. They had less inventory. 2. Though they were heavy on customer service, they did not hype their low price quite as much. But when she arrived at the second store, she felt at ease right from the start.

The process was fast and friendly and she said that the “second guy in the back office” (I prompted her with, “The finance guy?” and she said, “Yeah, that guy.”) was even nicer than the sales guy. It was obvious she was prepared for the F&I process to be difficult and was pleasantly surprised. This dealership listened to her needs, recognized that she had done her homework and provided her the service she expected, knowledge that she needed and a car that she quickly realized she wanted! It’s worth noting--- She never said if she got a great price or not.

In this particular consumer journey, one dealer learned the hard way (or maybe didn’t) that friendly service sells cars, not hype online about prices. While another dealership received reinforcement that their marketing and in-store processes were working.

I’m not sure how much money the latter store made on that transaction, but if you believe in the value of Word-of-Mouth, I know at least four people who were present for our conversation and learned about two dealerships… and she has yet to post an online review or go back to work to tell her colleagues.

What's the lesson?

Marketing today is getting more complicated. A comprehensive plan is necessary from the receptionist and the porter all the way through the sales team and the service writers. Everything must be in synch.

Car dealers can no longer use canned phrases like “Top Dollar” or “Easy Financing” in their advertising unless they can back them up throughout the organization. They can no longer hide behind the old tricks that were used in the past to make extra gross on car deals. If your people don’t understand how you market and are not closely managed to match that philosophy at the store, customers will vote with their feet.

A well thought out marketing plan that touches every aspect of social media, reputation management, and digital advertising will positively reflect on your business but only if it transfers to your customer service and in-store process. As dealers embrace digital media they must also embrace change in their in-store processes.

If you’re not sure how to best portray your dealership online or how to change in-store processes to better reflect the knowledge of today’s wary consumer, don’t hesitate to reach out to a consultant or peer. There’s nowhere to hide in today’s retail automotive industry. Match your marketing message every day in every way or risk suffering the same fate as the first store in my friend’s story.

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About the Author

Joe Tarell, Cobalt Performance Improvement Consultant Joe Tarell is a Performance Improvement Consultant at Cobalt.  He brings a rare blend of offline advertising, agency management and over 15 years of automotive digital advertising expertise. He spent nearly two years as an Internet marketing consultant including working with Gulf States Marketing helping Toyota’s Signature dealers improve their marketing and lead handling processes. He has presented to NADA 20 groups, OEM regional teams for Hyundai, General Motors and Toyota and worked directly with some of the largest dealer groups in the country.Feel free to reach out to Joe at

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Tags: advertising, automotive, car, consumer, dealer, journey, marketing, websites


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Comment by Joe Tarell on July 14, 2014 at 10:54am

@ChrisCachor - it doesn't even have to be that sneaky to be something that a consumer will run from.  I just believe if you advertise it or promote it, or your salesperson quotes it, you better back it up throughout your store process.

Comment by Chris Cachor on July 10, 2014 at 7:45pm

"Just curious, what kind of "old tricks" are we talking about here?"

I know of a few people that dealt with this. Getting a price from the sales guy then they get to the finance guy and all of the sudden the agreed upon price changed. From my experience it was with putting together numbers as well and lying about a finance rate to entice you into a better deal for them. (take the 0% and leave the rebate or take 4.9% and partial rebate - when the finance rate from OEM was really 2.9%). I think these sorts of things happen all the time.

Comment by Joe Tarell on June 18, 2014 at 4:06pm

@DavidRuggles I have always believed that transparency is the best policy. In today's world of internet research, consumers are armed with extensive knowledge when they walk onto the lot and will walk off the lot at the first sign of turbulence. Today I think dealers can’t play games or they risk jeopardizing the sale. Courteous and friendly service is paramount to closing every sale.

Comment by Alexander Lau on June 18, 2014 at 6:25am

@Manny and @David, blatant Cobalt advertisements aren't responded to in these waters. I've tried, to no avail. 

Comment by David Ruggles on June 18, 2014 at 12:48am

RE: "They can no longer hide behind the old tricks that were used in the past to make extra gross on car deals."

Just curious, what kind of "old tricks" are we talking about here?

Comment by Ralph Paglia on June 17, 2014 at 10:52pm

I enjoyed reading about your friend's car buying experience... I always listen carefully and ask many questions when people are willing to describe their vehicle purchase experience. What truly amazes me is how little it takes to blow a deal and send a customer packing... and likewise, how simply being courteous and friendly can sometimes make a deal.

Comment by Alexander Lau on June 17, 2014 at 11:38am

Digital Marketing has changed the way dealerships do business. However, that doesn't mean ignore the power of Traditional Media Marketing. In fact, we are creating a new analytics tool that will enable for retention measurement to prove just that. 

With that being said, our digital marketing strategy exists within the following:

You had better know where you are now, where you need to be and what you need to do, in order to be successful.

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