After twenty five years as a General Manager and Auto Dealer Principal, followed by 10 years as the President of a national network of independent automotive advertising agencies, I am a self described car guy. However, my definition of my chosen career and professional identity has been irrevocably altered by technology that has created a paradigm shift in the powers that govern the retail auto industry on many levels. Fortunately, the changes have all been for the best for those who embrace them to improve on what was, and with the vision of what could/ should be if technology is allowed to integrate old school wisdom with new world opportunities.
I first recognized the impact that technology was having on the retail auto industry when I started using computer driven processes and specialized software applications to enhance internal communications at my auto dealership. Efficiencies made possible by advanced DMS computer hardware supported by applications that allowed real time management of our P&L coupled with CRM applications, Inventory Management Systems and specialized tools that integrated processes across all departments to maximize my R.O.I. on many levels suggested the role that technology would have on future operations.
When I transitioned from the retail auto industry into automotive advertising I took my confidence in technology driven processes with me. I developed an internal communication / distribution system to replicate the inter-department management and monitoring processes that I enjoyed at my auto dealership. I was surprised at the universal nature that it had when applied to the day to day operations of my automotive advertising agency. Then came the Internet which exponentially increased the power of the computer technology that I had learned to leverage.
I immediately shifted my internal server functions onto more efficient online resources with the advantages of redundancy of data storage for added safety and of course the convenience of remote access from anywhere on the World Wide Web. The light bulb went off when I recognized the leverage of linking remote facilities with diverse products, services and skill sets to enhance my offerings to my auto dealer clients. Frankly, at that time I was still focused on using computers and the related technology — even on the Internet — for my own operations. I operated for seven years with the confidence that I was ahead of the technology curve; until I realized that I wasn’t and that I never would or could be.
Technology is a moving platform that must constantly evolve to take on new challenges as human nature drives people to seek the path of least resistance in life as well as the marketplace. As a result, the Internet has created an explosive growth in linked and leveraged resources for auto dealers as well as consumers. The technology driven change that impacted the retail auto industry the most has been consumer acceptance of the virtual auto dealerships on the Internet Super Highway vs. the less efficient brick and mortar facilities on car row.
Online shoppers now represent 93% of today’s car buyers who prefer to bypass the auto dealer and their automotive advertising agency’s self serving marketing messages — real or imagined in both the real and the virtual world — to get the information that they need to choose a new or pre-owned vehicle as well as the auto dealer that they want to purchase it from. The impact on established selling systems and required skill sets and resources for auto dealers who wish to remain competitive has created new opportunities for some and unforeseen challenges for many.
The Internet and technology has leveled the playing field for small independent auto dealerships to compete with larger better capitalized operations. The multimillion dollar facility and six figure monthly advertising budgets that allowed large dealer groups to dominate conventional media and community recognition have been equalized by the efficiencies and reduced costs offered by Internet showrooms and integrated selling processes anchored by much smaller real world facilities with less staff and inventory. Virtual showrooms can be built and managed for a few thousand dollars per month vs. a monthly debt service and operational expense to manage and maintain a brick and mortar facility that can easily run into six figures. The obvious savings in expense and exposure can be passed onto consumers who are demanding more for less in their vehicle purchase. The trickledown effect is that auto dealers must demand more for less not only through expense reductions at their facilities but from their automotive advertising agency in the form of reduced fees and advertising budgets to preserve bottom line profits.
Fortunately, forward thinking automotive advertising agencies can realize similar efficiencies in delivering their marketing messages through new media channels in a variety of new lanes on the Internet Super Highway. Conventional media such as radio, T.V. and newspaper have proven formulas to monitor results that rely on reach, frequency, cost per point, cost per impression, etc. to maximize R.O.I. Fortunately, many of the same philosophies can be applied to Internet based marketing, however, the rules of the road on the Internet Super Highway are very different than in the real world and in some cases they draw inverse conclusions with varying results.
For example, social networking is not a new phenomenon since it relies on the fact that human beings are social animals. Selling to friends, neighbors, relatives and personal spheres of influence has always been part of any professional sales process, however, the Internet and related applications have created efficiencies and challenges that are just now being realized. The efficiencies are evidenced by the explosive growth of social networking sites like Face Book, Twitter, My Space and personal access to the Internet with blogs and individual websites. The challenges are less obvious but equally important since a single mistake that used to impact one sale or a small group of shared friends is now amplified on the World Wide Web as it is virally distributed to millions of potential customers.
Applications that can insulate auto dealers from making mistakes in social media are being developed that are expanding the opportunity for those who apply them. DealerMouth.Com, for example, is a new application that allows an auto dealer to empower their sales staff to develop their own websites to market to past, present and pending customers with a centralized dashboard that monitors content before it goes live onto the Internet. The auto dealer hosts the individual sites and links them to his own information resources, such as inventory and related marketing material, while managing and monitoring the sales person’s activities to make sure that they fit established guidelines as to content as well as limiting use of the linked social networking sites to business related activities. Additional site analytics are available that compare individual activities on the site to share best practices amongst the staff, develop training processes and monitor make-a-deal meetings to quantify the R.O.I. realized by the auto dealer in his social networking activities. Monetizing social networking is the challenge of the day, and applications like DealerMouth provide a simple solution that is both cost effective and easily scalable to apply to staff in vehicle sales or fixed operations.
Leveraging and monetizing social networking beyond the auto dealer’s staff is also available through technology driven Internet solutions like the game changing car buying/selling search portal — ronsmap.com. ronsmap serves consumers and auto dealers alike with market intelligent leads that maximize the R.O.I. for the dealer by engaging consumers via social networking while empowering consumers to more efficiently select the vehicle and dealer that serves their needs.
Search engine fatigue is a recognized phenomenon that is created by the endless lists of individual vehicles that are presented by the search engines — like Google, MSN, Yahoo, etc. — as well as conventional third party vehicle inventory marketing portals — like AutoTrader.Com, Vehix.Com, Edmonds.Com, etc. — after applying their filters based on key words entered by the online shopper. ronsmap is configured like Google Maps with geo-targeted zones reflecting every vehicle for sale in concentric circles from the online shoppers’ location identified by the IP address of the computer that accesses the site. Rather than presenting vertical pages of individual vehicles in the selective order prioritized by paid premium positions or enhanced S.E.O. techniques applied by the dealer, ronsmap aggregates every vehicle for sale on the Internet horizontally on a map with vehicle listings sourced through direct data feeds from participating auto dealers as well as for sale by owner listings supplemented by their proprietary ontology semantic extraction and indexing process that functions like a mini-Google search engine focused exclusively on new and pre-owned vehicles. The result is a level playing field for all automobile dealers and private sellers that allows consumers to easily find, select and compare new and pre-owned vehicles of every make and model for sale in a pre-determined distance from their home or office.
Even more uniquely, ronsmap has integrated social networking feature functionality that allows consumers to solicit opinions from their online friends to help them make a buying decision. Their vBack application pushes the information on the vehicles that the ronsmap shopper selects directly to their personal social networking communities. In addition to the community voice that this solicitation generates, Google has learned to weight real time social media messages in their search algorithms to enhance the relevancy of their customers’ searches which further extends the S.E.O. of the posting dealer to the entire World Wide Web. The back end analytics available on the site which is made available to the posting auto dealers provides them with a social networking profile of the online shopper as well as real time viral coefficients associated with the messages sourced from vBack that quantify the R.O.I. realized by the dealer through the extended social networking activities provided by ronsmap. The added reach and frequency of message provided by these integrated applications extend the online footprint of the dealer and improve the shopping experience for the consumer in a win-win scenario that was not available before the Internet and this related technology was developed. More relevantly to this article, the entire process is built on proven characteristics of human nature that have survived onto the Internet.
The leveraged resources that it takes to sell more vehicles, for less money, with fewer staff and dedicated resources could not have come at a better time. Automotive advertising agencies that apply these cutting edge technologies designed to accommodate consumers in a pull/push manner on the Internet vs. old world push/pull marketing methods are already picking up market share. When the market comes back — and it will — these same agencies will be positioned to better serve their auto dealer clients through their use of technology powered by social media that leverages human nature to maximize the R.O.I. for their auto dealer clients.