Selling vehicles is more competitive than ever, so dealers need any advantage they can get. Yet, I’m amazed at how few dealerships leverage modern marketing technologies.

My dealership, Friendly Chevrolet in Fridley, MN, has been the No.1 Chevy dealer in our district for 16 years running. We leverage digital marketing. It has helped boost monthly sales by an average of 10 to 15 vehicles. That is more than 10% of our sales volume.

I’ve worked in automotive sales for 15 years, and managed Internet sales for 10. I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t. If you are considering expanding your digital marketing efforts for 2014, here are eight tips from the front line.

No.1: Start with a strong customer relationship management system or digital engagement platform. Chances are your brand or regional dealer network provides a tool to dealers, and may even subsidize the cost.

Take advantage of that. It likely comes with a lot of content from corporate that you can use while you learn to personalize for your market. Chevrolet provides a tool called Digital Traffic Generator from Agency 720 that I use every day.

No.2: Identify one person at your dealership who’s responsible for digital marketing. As with most things, if you leave it to a committee, it just doesn’t get done.

No.3: While one person should lead the effort, train multiple people on how to use your digital marketing tools. Salespeople should look at this as a career builder. They should be clamoring to learn these skills.

No.4: Most dealerships start with generic newsletters – one version sent to all prospects – because it’s easy to do. That’s a great start. But over time, you should use the tool more creatively and learn to segment and personalize those newsletters. It will have a big impact on results.

We’re at the point with our process that we can target very specifically. For instance, if we detect customers searching for SUVs at our website, we can target them with an SUV offer via email.

If we see that a customer’s website visit frequency is ramping up or if we receive a live-chat inquiry, we can send a special coupon offer to entice them in for a test drive. We’ve achieved high response rates using those techniques.

No.5: Make sure your website and emails are mobile ready. Data from Outsell shows that more than one third of dealer emails are opened on a mobile device.

A Cars.com survey found 43% of car buyers use their mobile devices on the lot to access pricing information, research features and visit a dealer’s website.

Your website and email templates should be based on responsive-design techniques that ensure they are automatically resized to fit any screen, whether it’s a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

No.6: Keep your website fresh. It’s truly the face of your dealership. Virtually every customer now visits your website multiple times before they visit in person. Make a good first impression.

No.7: Leverage live chat. Prospects visiting your website are actively looking for a vehicle. Their interest in buying is as high as a showroom visitor’s.

Our CRM system includes a live chat feature, but you can also buy these tools separately. There generally are two options.

  • Outsourcing chat to a service (much like an answering service) that fields chat messages on your behalf.
  • Having your staff take shifts monitoring and answering chat messages. We prefer this. We’ve found most chat sessions involve inventory or pricing questions a third party can’t answer.

No.8: Use text and short message service (SMS) marketing carefully. New Federal Trade Commission rules require companies to have explicit opt-in customer permission before texting them for marketing purposes.

So, we use text campaigns sparingly. But as our opt-in list builds, I expect to add text marketing into our mix. Outsell says text messages have a 99% read rate, and 90% are read within three minutes of delivery.

Outsell data shows that dealers get a 31% response rate from SMS campaigns. That’s a significantly higher than we typically see from email.

Some other automotive salespeople tell me they’ve shied away from digital marketing because they don’t want to spam. I counter that our digital marketing tools ensure that we don’t spam.

All customers and prospects have opted in to email marketing. Our communications are targeted and timely. For each mailing we send to our database of over 60,000 people, we might have five or six people unsubscribe. That’s incredibly low.

Chevy’s latest advertising campaign features the slogan “Shop, Click and Drive.” Consumers do so much online, including shopping for cars. So invest in digital marketing.

Margie Martin is the Internet sales manager at Friendly Chevrolet in Fridley, MN.