By Debbie Kirlew
In our largely digital world, marketing has never been more crucial. Before stepping foot in a showroom or service facility, consumers research their next purchase and servicing options online, while also seeking confirmation, often via social media, that a dealership is trustworthy.
However, the increasingly complex way in which consumers decide to buy means an integrated approach to the physical and virtual worlds is essential. Customers, whether looking to buy soon or yet to begin their purchase journey, must be engaged.
Jim Murray-Jones, general manager at Exchange & Mart, said: “The key to driving more sales is an integrated approach at a local level, which builds the dealer’s brand, reaching passive and active buyers.”
Rather than being treated as stand-alone campaigns, whatever marketing elements dealers choose from the ‘menu’ must complement each other and deliver consistent messaging and branding.
Building the business’s brand is the foundation, according to MB Advertising, which has been providing advertising and marketing services to the automotive sector for more than 25 years and counts some of the top independent businesses among its client base.
Director Neale Evans said: “Brand standards must be in place and they need to be applied consistently across the entire marketing spectrum. The standards need to be communicated throughout the business – everyone needs to know what your brand stands for.”
Brand-building at a local level builds brand visibility, authority and trust with local communities and undertaking that off-line as well as online is vital.
Murray-Jones said as large dealer groups look for ways to stand out, they are increasingly becoming involved in the local community, by having a presence at a local supermarket or a regional event or sponsoring a local sports team.
This is then communicated on dealer websites, through social medial channels and via press releases distributed to local newspapers.
He said: “Brand building at a local level doesn’t have to be expensive – it is about being highly targeted and using the marketing mix to your advantage by dovetailing your advertising and content to reach the people in your area who are searching for a car, even if they are at the very start of the process. This complements the well-established tactical approach to drive more business to independent dealers and maximise marketing budgets.”
No automotive retail business can succeed without a website, which needs to be fully responsive since about 65% of users will be accessing it on a smartphone or tablet.
“We advise designing a website from a mobile perspective because that’s how most people are looking and then you have to ensure it is full of great content to satisfy Google,” said Evans.
“Everyone is online, so you must have a good presence. There’s so much choice, but that can work in the favour of the independents – a small dealer or a niche business can punch above their weight and sell anywhere in the UK.”
For a car to be found and a forecourt visited, consumers will first search online and that needs to be a straightforward process.
Natalie Young, account director for large independents at online finance tool provider iVendi, said: “Don’t make searching for vehicles on your website too complicated.
“If you are using a traditional search, remember that the customer is looking for their next vehicle, not filling in a tax form, so keep it simple. If you are using keyword search, then you should also make traditional search easily accessible for customers who want to use it.”
Providing good content that consumers want to see will boost search results and should include customer reviews, particularly on Google, where the coveted five stars appear in the search, and high-quality images.
Data from Motors.co.uk suggests that listings with five images of a car deliver a 180% improvement in click-through rate (CTR), compared with cars that have no images. Cars with 10 images see an average CTR 215% higher than those without.
Images need to be backed up with accurate product description, including some commentary about why a particular vehicle could be the perfect choice.
Murray-Jones re-emphasised sponsored content in the physical world, as well as via the digital space. He suggests a range of activity, including a local celebrity, figurehead or community figure driving a dealership’s car, with the article appearing in local press titles, on websites and social media for maximum coverage via several channels with one piece of content.
Increasingly, consumers are researching finance online, as well as details of their next car, making its presence on dealer websites more and more important.
Young makes a series of recommendations, including tagging the ‘cash price’ and ‘monthly payment’ buttons so they can be tracked in Google Analytics. The default should be set to monthly payment to attract finance customers at the earliest stage. The ‘maximum price’ in a search in the used car locator should also be the next band’s ‘minimum price’ to minimise customer error.
The default display should show vehicles priced from high to low when returning results from a payment search, in order to show the most aspirational vehicles first, as affordable PCP offers will then be highlighted. Car buyers are also increasingly checking their eligibility for finance products and pre-qualifying themselves, making the availability of such tools on a dealer’s website crucial.
Kirk Franks, head of national sales at Alphera Financial Services, highlights the importance of a campaign message that is not always about offering the lowest price or APR rate.
“An effective finance-led marketing campaign can have a significant impact on the number of enquires that an independent dealer receives, especially when the marketing activity incorporates some bespoke elements,” he said.
“For example, holding events where customers can come along, meet the team and learn about the products on offer can be hugely successful, especially when joined up with current events, such as global sporting championships/competitions.”
Using classified ads to highlight stock has been a stalwart of the motor trade since the heyday of print and its importance has arguably intensified online as dealers vie for the attention of car-buyers.
However, Murray-Jones warned that dealers cannot rely on classifieds alone.
He said: “Classifieds and digital marketing can be a commoditised environment, especially for volume car brands, where users are potentially swamped by the paradox of choice – large numbers of similar vehicles, only differentiated by price.
“On that basis, consumers seek other points of reference to cancel out their purchase concerns – can they trust the dealer, are they going to be ripped off, does the vehicle have the right history? Given that backdrop, dealers need to consider how they differentiate and reinforce their brand values and how they can reassure customers that their brand is trusted.
“Dealers obviously need to get their stock in front of buyers at the point of choice, but there needs to be a consistency in delivery and recognisable brand values extending across their websites, social media and local marketing initiatives.”
“When done well, social media can deliver exceptional results,” said Evans. “We have one used car outlet in the West Midlands whose owners use social media really well – taking pictures of customers when they collect their cars, for example, and posting on Facebook. It has really helped them establish the business as part of the community.”
Franks agreed: “Just by engaging in discussions with customers, current or prospective, across various platforms demonstrates that the dealership is responsive, open and personable, which plays a huge part in people’s decision-making processes.”
Martin Dew, head of digital marketing at automotive digital agency Autoweb, said: “It isn’t enough to get visitors to your website. Your website needs to generate sales leads from those visitors. The real key is continually monitoring how your website is performing and where your sales leads are coming from.”
Dew advises tracking lead creation on a dealer’s website and the preceding events that resulted in the lead; thinking about the consumer’s needs at different points in the path to purchase; looking at how different sources of website traffic behave and thinking about how to improve conversion rates for each; defining what change is being tested and, when there is a result, learning accordingly.
Engaging websites need to be backed up with an exceptional off-line experience.
Phil Jones, managing director of Motors.co.uk, said: “Our insights show consistently that great presentation online, matched by great offline experience, is the best way to maximise the return on your advertising investment. Simply put, take great images, give plenty of information on your car and respond to consumers promptly and enthusiastically.”
Young said it’s time to see the dealership and website as one: “The days of talking about the website and the showroom as two separate channels will soon disappear. Buying both vehicle and finance online is now possible.
“As the technology develops to meet consumer demand, perhaps the biggest challenge will be for the trade to adapt its processes to embrace the omni-channel approach. We believe car supermarkets will be the first movers in providing consumers with a full online used vehicle retailing experience.”
In the digital era, you would be forgiven for thinking marketing exists purely online, but Rachel Aldighieri, managing director of the Direct Mail Association, highlights the advantages of direct mail and door drops. It is the only media that can reach 100% of UK households, although targeting to reach the right audience by demographics and postcode is recommended.
She said: “While digital has never been more important, it’s doubly important to remember that mixing digital and non-digital media amplifies the effects of both.”
Not surprisingly, the volume of mail has decreased as marketing has moved online. According to the recent ‘Private Life Of Mail’ research by Royal Mail, 74% of us read mail for an average 21 minutes on a daily basis, longer than we spend reading magazines on average. But as we now receive less – 8.9 pieces of mail per week – it means we spend a fairly long time looking at a smaller amount and it is kept in the house for almost 40 days.
Aldighieri added: “If you decide to use direct mail, include a reason for the recipient to go online (offers of money off and discounts work the best), as this helps you track how your campaign progresses and gives you valuable data.”
Radio remains one of the most appealing advertising and marketing platforms for businesses, particularly outside London, where smaller stations often deliver a highly targeted campaign for lower cost.
Radioworks handles the entire process on behalf of its clients, from planning and booking to advert production. Their clients generally report higher footfall following a campaign, particularly among car dealerships.
Radio specialist Jessica Bernard said: “Most people are fairly habitual and will often listen to the radio while eating breakfast or while they are in the car. Continual advertising builds brand awareness. Radio is effective because people often listen at set times.”
Ensuring that the right radio station (there are more than 320 commercial stations across the UK) is utilised for the business’s demographics is crucial, as well as the advert timings, frequency of slots and cost, which can be as little as £200 per week or hundreds of thousands for large, national stations. Regular advertisers are not necessarily broadcasting week in, week out – dealers often undertake a two-week intensive campaign to promote offers or an event such as a sale, or undertake activity when a new site is opened or refurbished.
The customer experience
Ultimately, it is the customer experience that determines whether a consumer completes a purchase. Research from Motors.co.uk shows 36% of consumers expect a reply to an email enquiry within 24 hours, with 33% expecting one within four hours and 27% within one hour.
Jones said: “Your investment in marketing and your website will only be realised if the offline experience for the consumer is as rich. Failure to respond can significantly harm your ability to convert leads into sales.”