Many dealers are dedicating more of their advertising budgets to hiring professional photographers and videographers to glamorize inventory on the used-car lots.

It’s done in an effort to attract the attention of customers using third-party automotive websites that list dealer inventory. Studies show viewer interest of such listings depends on many things, particularly high-quality images and lots of them.

“He who has the biggest web (presence) is going to win the used-car buyer in today’s market,” says Jeff Collins, digital-marketing sales director for Peters Chevrolet in Longview, TX. 

He estimates 90% of the dealership’s car buyers first gather information on the Internet before heading to the store.

Among today’s most active automotive web portals are AutoTrader.com, Cars.com, Kelley Blue Book and Black Book USA.

Dealers can list and advertise their used-car offerings on those sites or select the ones demonstrating the best result for drawing Internet users to a specific brand.

“Statistically, a consumer visits 18 points of reference when they are shopping for vehicles from websites, word of mouth, newspapers and social media,” says Jeff Kershner, founder and blogger for DealerRefresh.com and consultant to Frederick Nissan in Gaithersburg, MD.

“On average 20% to 30% of consumers cross-shop between various web portals,” he says.

Millions of prospective auto customers go to the major web portals in search of vehicles that fit their needs, fulfill their dreams and meet their budgets. It’s a busy online marketplace. Dealers need marketing skills so their stores and inventories stand out.

Among best practices is photography of listed vehicles, says digital marketing manager Wayne Ussery of the 12-franchise Jim Ellis Group based in suburban Atlanta.

He pays a staff of three videographers/photographers to shoot his best used- vehicle models as though they were contestants in a beauty pageant.

Creampuff pre-owned vehicles are depicted in long- and short-view shots. There are plenty of interior and exterior detail photos to showcase assets. A professional announcer provides voiceovers.

“Customers look at the car, check out reviews for this make and model, then click through to our dealership web page,” Ussery says. “We’ll then start an online chat immediately.”

Used cars have been a major profit center, sustaining dealers through slumps in new-car sales.

Franchised dealerships sold more than 15.6 million used cars in 2011, according to the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

Of these, 8.7 million were retailed and 6.9 million wholesaled. The average 2011 used retail selling price was $17,267, up 4.8% from $16,474 in 2010. 

No.1 on the 2012 WardsAuto Dealer Remarketing 150 is Braman Motorcars of West Palm Beach, FL. Its used-car operation generated $79.2 million in revenue last year.

Wooing customers

Dealers and third-party portal executives say the process of drawing vehicles to the portals, pricing and showcasing vehicles for sale, estimating trade-ins and enhancing the showroom experience must be seamless.

“In just five years the amount of inventory online has exploded, thanks to high-speed inventory and savvy shoppers,” says Kevin Filan, AutoTrader’s vice president-consumer marketing.

Customers usually start with a Google search for a model that interests them. The first references they typically find are the web portals supported by car- dealer listings. 

“We’ve shifted our advertising budget from 1% to 2% for online web portals like Cars.com about seven years ago to anywhere around 40% to 75% online today,” says Rusty Strange, digital marketing manager for the Hudson Automotive Group with stores in Kentucky and South Carolina.

The third-party automotive sites offer more than just inventory listings. They also offer the likes of finance tutorials, dealership ratings and car reviews by both professional journalists and consumers.

Kelley Blue Book started 86 years ago as a used-car price guide for dealers.

Now, its consumer website, kbb.com, draws about13 million unique visitors every month.

It helps educate customers with expert and consumer reviews of products, says Kelley President Jared Rowe, adding that the company also does business with 3,000 dealer customers.

Nick Hummer, Cars.com’s director-local advertising solutions, says 705,000 people viewed the dealer review pages in the past three months.

Of this number, those who engaged with the site were five times more likely to contact a dealer they felt comfortable working with. With good marketing, algorithms and luck, the Internet can deliver customers to the doorstep of a dealership.

“It’s like traffic on the road,” Collins says. “You don’t want people to drive by; you want them to stop and come inside. If we are successful with our pictures and details, people will engage with our selling process.”

 In used-car sales, the vehicle is the star of the conversation, Hummer says. “People want to know its personality, history and competitors in class. After that, it is about which dealer will give them a great purchase experience.”

Lead drivers

Nearly all the customer-based web portals have reformatted their sites to help mobile customers identify both cars and car stores during the treasure hunt.

Customers hypothetically could stand on one dealer’s used-car lot looking at a ’10 Volkswagen Jetta, then pull up a website on their smartphone and identify all the dealerships within a designated radius to see comparable models are for sale.

Filan touts AutoTrader’s software tool, Trade-In Marketplace, as taking the fear out of trade-ins.

In an interactive questionnaire, customers input car-condition details of their potential trade-ins, from dings and dents to mileage and maintenance history.

Within 24 hours they have a bona fide offer they can take to participating dealerships within a few days and AutoTrader will guarantee the price.

The software program will link this lead to participating dealers who often offer a $50 gift card to test-drive a newer used car while assessing the trade-in, thus generating leads.

“We have ways to retarget you, to track you with advertising once you’ve visited our website,” says Ussery. “When we send you a gift card electronically, we are rewarding you for your potential time and interest.

“We close about 50% to 70% of the people who come into us with the card and the trade-in offer.”

Awaiting the influx

In the old days, bird-dogging for leads included rewarding people such as the hairdresser, gardener and mechanic who made referrals to the dealership used-car manager.

Today, the web portals generate leads, but the dealership uses software and salesmanship to secure the sale.

BlackBook.com, primarily a business-to-business site, enrolls 18,000 dealers to seek up-to-the-minute pricing. Having such information is considered a business advantage.  

Rick Beggs, vice president of the Atlanta-based subscription service, says its portfolio analysis is the most valuable. 

“If the dealer has 100 cars, they could have $1 million tied up in inventory,” he says. “They can get overnight price estimates on every car in stock and decide whether to increase the price or cut it loose.”

With its mobile applications, dealers can input VIN numbers and access a history of maintenance and ownership while they visit a private owner or auction.

“The used-car market is tremendously strong,” Beggs says. “The values have been so high, they are starting to adjust. So it is all the more important to know current pricing.”

Once the customer comes through the dealership door, the longstanding art of salesmanship applies.

“People will check their friends on Facebook, the ratings and reviews of dealerships,” Kershner says.

He adds: “They come in with a fair idea of what they will pay and what their trade-in is worth, but they still want a salesperson to build a relationship, take them on a test drive and find them the best financing and service.

“When dealers maximize their presence on a variety of marketing channels available, they enjoy a huge following.”