LAS VEGAS – For digital marketers, online learning means finding out what works.

It often is trial and error, say attendees at the J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Internet Roundtable here. Roy Bavaro, director-corporate marketing for DCH Auto Group, a dealership chain, cites an example.

“When customers click on a digital ad, you need to send them to what that banner ad is saying, not to a general website,” he says. “That’s a lesson we learned. You have to answer their questions and provide the information they want.”

He and other panelists discuss how to use psychology and technology to engage today’s car customers.

“The importance of the creative message is the same in any advertising,” says James Maguire, senior director at data provider Experian Automotive. “You must capture them in the first three seconds, whether on TV, cable, radio or online video. The right message to the right consumer works.”

Some veteran dealers struggle with new-age marketing, Bavaro says. “It can be a harsh transition for people in the business a long time. They are bombarded with pitches from people telling them, ‘This will work; this will sell more cars.’”

Digital marketers may think online advertising is the best, but not everyone is convinced of its singularlity.

“We’d all like to spend more on digital, but we have to take it from somewhere else in the ad budget,” says Jenny Howell, an American Honda regional marketing manager. “If I took 10% out of TV and put it in digital, I’d get angry calls from dealers, and I’m not sure that change would be very effective.”

Neville Manohar heads digital marketing at Chrysler, where executives think the best way to reach customers is through assorted channels.

“Our bosses say multimedia is important,” he says. “We may not know what the right mix is, but TV, digital and print have roles. We need to bring it all together.”

DCH stays active on social-networking websites. “You’ve got to be on Facebook, but for added value, not direct sales,” Bavaro says. “People are there to interact, not to be sold to.

“You must pay attention to what is said about you and respond to both the good and bad. Reputation management from a dealer perspective is a full-time job.”

Bavaro advises against “totally” outsourcing social-media duties. But Howell thinks some dealerships “are better off hiring a vendor to do their social-media reputation management,” at least in the short term.

“Dealers are coming to us for help with social networking,” she says. “Right now, it is difficult for many of them to do in-house.”

With 27 dealerships representing 11 brands, New Jersey-based DCH has learned to recognize diverse customer bases and market to them differently, Bavaro says.

“A website needs to focus on particular buyers,” he says. “If you are selling a cool and hip car, the content needs to be cool and hip. An ideal website is interactive, packed with information and keeps people engaged.”

Certain customer behavior seems constant, regardless of life in the Internet Age.

“People aren’t at the dealership holding up their mobile-device screens and saying, ‘This is the deal,’ any more than they would hold up a newspaper ad and say that,” Bavaro says. “But they are using smartphones to scan QR codes, especially young people.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com