Future car shoppers may rate dealerships on the quality of their websites in addition to how staffers treat customers on the premises, a strategist says. 

Current online dealership reviews center on in-store customer experiences. But David Winslow thinks that eventually will expand to dealership website critiques.

“If a site lacks relevant information, doesn’t work well or isn’t updated regularly, a consumer might give it a bad review, saying something like, ‘Here’s why I didn’t even make it to the dealership,’” he says.

Winslow is chief digital strategist for Dealer.com, a company that started out designing and maintaining dealer websites. It since has expanded to other support services, such as digital-marketing consultation.

Because dealer websites serve as virtual showrooms, experts say they should offer rich content, such as real-time inventory and incentives, product information and vehicle reviews.

The absence of such things can frustrate shoppers, Winslow says. “If people have a bad website experience, and they have (rating website) Yelp open on the next screen, it is pretty easy for them to write a bad dealership review.”

Much of Winslow’s Dealer.com efforts involve working with dealers to get the most from their digital display advertising. In early days of Internet marketing, static banner ads weren’t particularly impressive or effective.    

That’s changing, Winslow says. “Digital ads are getting a new breath of life because they are better targeted and better placed.”

Automaker advertising promotes a particular brand. After that, dealer ads follow up with call-to-action themes.

“It’s getting consumers on a purchase path to click on banner ads that take them to a dealer website or Web page,” he says. “It’s usually done with incentives and offers such as an attractive lease rate; relevancy; and actionable content. The more targeted the message, the better. Consumers want real offers they’re able to act on.”

The resurgence of banner ads relies on proper placement. “We want to run them where we know people are shopping for cars,” Winslow says.

He favors advertising on Jumpstart Automotive’s portfolio of 13 websites. Those include online car magazines and the National Automobile Dealers Assn.’s NADAguides.com.

“People don’t go to NADAguides.com to read the news,” Winslow says. “They go there because they’re in the market to buy a car.”

He urges dealer clients to run their new-car ads on used-car-oriented websites. That may seem contradictory. “But if people are looking for a used car with payments of $300 to $400 a month, and then see an ad saying they can get a new car for that, they start thinking about it.”

Automaker and dealer ads should share common design cues even though the messages and tones are different, he says. “We work with agencies so there is a consistency. Some dealer campaigns don’t visually line up with the brand’s.”

Then there’s personalization to consider. “That’s based on region a lot,” Winslow says. “If you are a Northeast dealer and it is winter time, think about snow in the background. If you are a California dealer, go with the beaches.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com