Compelling dealership website content attracts online car shoppers, but too much information can repel them, says automotive Internet marketing expert David Kain. 

He cites an overdone website with 44 links. “That’s too much for customers,” he says. “It disrupts the normal flow by throwing a lot of stuff at them.”

The Internet kindles shopper interest, but the dealership remains the sales flashpoint, says Kain, head of Kain Automotive consultancy and part-owner of a dealership his father founded, the namesake Jack Kain Ford in Versailles, KY, near Lexington.

“My Dad taught me a long time ago to bring ’em in, and if they don’t buy what they came in for, sell them something else,” Kain says. “The dealership is where everything happens.”

But the Internet serves as a great warm-up act. While overwrought dealership websites can leave people cold, good ones “make the customer feel, ‘This is easy,’” Kain says, citing a navigation-friendly website for Toyota-Scion of Deerfield Beach, FL.

Studies indicate car shoppers look at as many as 18 dealership websites before picking a store to visit, he says. “If someone is shopping 18 stores, make coming to yours important,” he tells dealers at a recent DrivingSales Executive Summit in Las Vegas. “Make your brand about the customer.”

It’s rare to get a second chance to make a first impression. “If you don’t do a good job on the first day, your future prospects for a sale are sunk,” Kain says. “Imagine when a dealership lacks the same enthusiasm about selling a car that the customer has about buying one.”

The inevitable result of that disconnect: No sale.

Kain foresees the day when all dealership salespeople, not just those in a designated Internet department, will handle online leads. Doing that requires salesmanship, product knowledge, communication skills and typing proficiency, he says.

Many modern dealers go after high-caliber prospective employees. “Today, we want someone with about a 3.6 grade point average,” Kain says. “Years ago, no one at our dealership had anything higher than a 2.0, and if they did we didn’t hire them because they wouldn’t fit in. Now we hire them.”

Scouting for such personnel, Kain Ford regularly participates in University of Kentucky job fairs. The store bills itself as more than a car dealership.

“The top of our job-fair exhibit sign says ‘Digital marketing. Social networking. Communications,’” Kain says. “We want students to know we do what so many of them are interested in. OK, with us, it turns into a car sale. So what?

“Dealerships are a great business, and we get great job candidates. An ‘Internet’ dealership doesn’t have room for slackers.”

He advises dealership employees online and off to take all customers seriously, or risk losing a potential sale by misjudging intent.

“Why do we lose a lot of sales?” Kain says. “Because we’re not taking them seriously. Some salespeople say, ‘When they are serious buyers, I will treat them seriously.’ That’s crazy.”

He notes online marketing innovations that include emailing videos consisting of 30-second “walk-arounds” highlighting vehicles in which shoppers express an interest.

Kain praises Elise Kephart of Sunset Honda in San Luis Obispo, CA, for sending personalized video email replies to customers who submit online leads.

Some dealerships use Skype to make virtual appointments. Dealerships near the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina started that as a means of communicating with overseas service personnel planning to buy a car upon their return to the U.S.

Kain advocates “nurturing marketing” in which a sales consultant regularly stays in touch with a prospect by phone calls and emails. “We all know the cycle. A lot of customers are hot at first, then cool down. But keep delivering the message.”

He believes in blending digital marketing with established sales processes, saying, “100% of opportunity comes from marketing, and 100% of results come from process.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com