Special Coverage

2011 Ward's e-Dealer 100

For many veteran dealers, keeping up with the latest Internet advancements is a steep learning curve. For the younger set at dealerships, it’s a way of life.

They tweet on Twitter, befriend customers on Facebook, share uploaded YouTube videos and promote locations on FourSquare. For them, multi-functional smartphones always are in hand or at least at hand.

Welcome to modern auto retailing where dealerships such as Lebanon Ford are “becoming more than a dealership,” says Jeff Cryder, 23, the store’s digital communications director.

“We’re a hub for information and entertainment,” he says of the store in Lebanon, OH, north Cincinnati. “Our customers could go down the street and purchase a car for $500 less. They do business here for the emotional connection, the experience of Lebanon Ford.”

Jeff Cryder expects dealer principal Lisa Cryder, his aunt, to authorize 70% of the marketing and advertising budget toward social networking this year, and the remainder to traditional lines of communication.

He recently hired a marketing assistant and commissions a videographer and a photographer for project shoots that are posted online, including social-media sites.

Social media isn’t about making the quick dealership sale. It’s about building relationships that lead to sales. But all that Internet action seems to be paying off for Lebanon Ford.

The store in 2010 saw a 181% spike in visits to its website compared with 2009. Unique visits rose 125%, total page views 623% and submitted leads 407%.

Meanwhile, the store’s search-engine traffic off Google rose 151%.

The upstart dealership, purchased five years ago, is using the Internet to make itself known, Jeff Cryder says. “We’re the most recognizable dealership in the online sphere.”

Another digital leader is Mary Seeger, new marketing director of Todd Wenzel Automotive in Grand Rapids, MI, representing Chevrolet, Buick and GMC at two stores.

The group saw a 150% increase in visits to its website in 2010. Search-engine optimization and social-networking efforts deserve a lot of the credit, she says, pointing out how dealerships should use social media.

“Our overriding objective is how can we be something people are interested in, not interrupt the things they are interested in,” Seeger says. “People don’t come to Facebook to shop. They come to share interactions.”

With more than 600 million members of Facebook and 175 million people plinking keys on Twitter, the social-networking phenomenon is sweeping the globe.

Savvy dealers are finding novel ways to transform the digital interactions into long-term customers.

Yet, the advice for how to succeed in this transformed business environment could have come from Roman orator Cicero: “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words.”

Here’s a look at some offbeat and successful dealership campaigns using social media.

Take the Keys, Please

Jeff Cryder’s team selects digitally vibrant people in the Dayton-Cincinnati area, and offers them 5-days use of any car on the lot they choose in exchange for blogging, photographing and commenting on the experience.

Fourteen participants, including church pastors, construction crew chiefs, car club presidents and mommy bloggers, have extolled the virtues of the vehicles.

Applicants fill out loaner forms agreeing to undergo a background check. They must have a valid driver’s license and insurance. They have a 250-mile (400-km) limit and can’t cross state lines.

“They blog about how much they love Ford cars, the infotainment system, the safety features, even the key feature that restricts teenagers from driving fast,” Jeff Cryder says.

It is patterned after a social-media project Ford did to promote its new Fiesta compact car. Before the vehicle hit the market, the auto maker loaned several of them to people who shared their travel experiences.

After the Lebanon Ford bloggers turned the cars in, the dealership gave them VIP cards for discounted service, free car washes and $500 discounts toward a vehicle purchase, with no limit on when the coupon must be redeemed.

Follow That Storm

Todd Wenzel Automotive partners with the Dominator Team from the “Discovery Channel” cable TV show about top storm chasers that track down tornadoes and other extreme storms.

The dealership group gave a complimentary GMC Yukon XL to the team led by Reed Trimmer and Chris Chittick, originally from Grand Rapids, MI. They chase the biggest tornadoes around the Midwest to collect scientific data and insight, and later appear at schools and community events to talk about the pursuits.

The dealership highlights their partnership and activities online. Such promotions are expected to contribute indirectly to Wenzel’s annual sales of about 2,000 new and 1,500 used vehicles, Seeger says.

“A huge fan base follows the team on Facebook and Twitter,” she says. “We invite the team and these fans to live events at the dealership. People learn updates in real time and give us real feedback.”

Express Yourself

Third-generation car dealer Jill Merriam, co-owner of Key Hyundai in Manchester and Milford, CT, knows women influence 80% of vehicle purchases. She plays to this audience.

“The more people know about me, the more they are likely to reach out and allow me to help them with their service needs and car purchases,” she says.

Merriam hires a professional writer to pen weekly blogs about her family, the car business, Hyundai quality and community events.

She posts frequent YouTube videos with service and car-buying tips, finance and insurance lessons and pothole warnings, using a simple flip camera.

In one video, she assures consumers it’s not some sort of ruse when sales people tell a customer they must talk to the sales manager about a deal in progress.

It’s a technical conversation in which numbers primarily are discussed, and if the customer wants to witness it, that’s fine with her, she tells viewers.

“Don’t misunderstand, I make money when people buy cars,” Merriam says. “But wouldn’t people be more likely to buy cars from an automotive and finance expert who meets their needs, rather than a product pusher?”

She thinks she knows the answer to that. “My repeat and referral business is off the hook.”

2-Way Communications

Toyota of Naperville (IL) posts Facebook status updates about thinks like Toyota’s 3 millionth certified pre-owned customer hailing from its store and other happy news regarding its clients and dealership doings.

Frequent online conversations with owners and friends help the store build at least 1,200 visitors a month and gain leads.

Then, General Manager Pat O’Brien and his Internet team work to strengthen the connection. They send electronic vehicle-specific newsletters to all their sales and service customers. Included are e-coupons and car-care tips.

A digital program notifies the dealership when customers click on the website to redeem a coupon and stay to mouse over the new vehicle displays, including its build-a-Camry feature.

“We’re becoming experts at drilling in and mining data from our Web audience,” O’Brien says.

The dealership sold 3,500 new and 1,500 used vehicles in 2010 as it ramped up its efforts in search-engine optimization and social networking.

Picture Worth 1,000 Words

Courtney Cole, the co-owner of Hare Chevrolet in Indianapolis, IN, makes greater use of blogs, Twitter and Facebook to tell its message.

The store’s Facebook site includes videos of the ’11 Camaros coming off a transport truck, pictures of new-car buyers and contests with prizes such as a free oil change and use of a car for a long weekend.

Thirty-two people joined a conversation about dirty motor oil, and a dozen had input on favorite movies. On the dealership’s Facebook page, people often congratulate a helpful employee or post a message about a featured customer.

Cole and her sister are convinced such efforts build a loyal audience at a dealership that sold 3,600 vehicles last year. “We preach a mix on Facebook,” she says. “Don’t kill people with car stuff.”

She encourages staffers to post on Facebook. “Each employee has friends. If they tap their network, that means more people exposed to news about our dealership. That’s how we form relationships.”

Dealers with active social-media programs offer these dos and don’ts.

    Do:
  • Hire someone knowledgeable about social networking. An optimum person has several years’ professional writing and marketing experience and shares ideas well, says Merriam.
  • Use a lot of visuals. Seeger built interest in a dealership-construction project by posting pictures of each phase and detailing how certain features would benefit customers.
  • Swap stores. Where the old-time car dealer screamed price and quantity at customers on late night TV, today’s social networkers share experiences. When a severe winter storm hit Indianapolis, Cole posted photos of vehicles on the lot nearly buried in snow.
    Don't:
  • Expect social networking to instantly lead to sales. Measure effectiveness by unique visits, Internet leads and search-engine traffic.
  • Expect everyone to like you on Facebook. And don’t assume people who like you will soon become customers. Develop a compelling reason for people to participate.

Good content includes fresh pictures, interesting story tidbits and a feeling of connection. If a dealership sponsors a youth sports team, the store’s Facebook page is a perfect place to show game photos.

  • Try to control the public. Some people may speak up on Facebook or information-gathering sites like “Yelp.com” to say they were treated poorly. Jump on the complaint and try to resolve it. But some folks just like to gripe.
  • Write strict policies for employees contributing to Facebook, Twitter and other sites. An employee at Chrysler’s social-media agency used an obscenity in a tweet criticizing drivers in Detroit. He got fired and Chrysler dropped the agency.
  • Use social-media sites to list vehicle inventory, pictures and prices. That information belongs on the dealership website. Use social media to showcase people and events.