LOS ANGELES – A new and improved version of Internet lead-scoring is here for the auto-retailing industry.

All that remains is getting dealerships to use it. That could be the hard part.

“We know lead-scoring is not fully adopted by a lot of dealerships,” says Michael Spadafore, manager-consumer and commercial marketing for auto-information provider R.L. Polk & Co.

He’s hopeful that will change soon because of the enhanced benefits of lead-scoring, which “entered the world with a bang and now has matured and morphed into full-service lead marketing,” driven by data integration and real-time analytics.

The latest generation of lead-scoring software systematically ranks leads in order of importance and urgency, offers greater market intelligence and allows dealership staffers to follow up better and close more sales, Spadafore says.

“The difference between those that use lead marketing to its fullest and those that have not yet embraced it will be evident moving forward in this tough sales climate,” he says at the Automotive Customer Centricity Summit hosted here by Thought Leadership Summits.

Introduced about five years ago, the scoring system uses data garnered from various sources to rank the level of buying interest of consumers submitting Internet leads to dealerships.

Basic rankings include ready to buy, not yet ready to buy and close to a purchase but needing additional consultation.

The system is intended to aid dealers in deploying their forces by jumping on hot leads and cultivating – not ignoring – less pressing prospects.

When first introduced, lead-scoring gained support from early adoptors, then lost favor with dealership sales people confounded by the system, but kept the interest of stalwarts who stuck with it.

That sequence follows a pattern cited by the Gartner Hype Cycle, a research tool that tracks the behavioral stages of people using new technology. It typically reaches a point where they ask, “How did we live without that?” Spadafore says.

The enhanced system helps get prioritized leads to the right sales staffers based on their workload, provides richer customer data, uses incentives such as gift cards to draw prospects to the dealership and divides lead submitters into segments.

Those segments, or “buckets,” include subprime consumers, previous buyers of a particular brand, undecided shoppers, prospects leaning towards used cars, those with high potential to buy immediately and “diamonds in the rough” who may eventually buy.

“The buckets are only important if there are different types of treatment with different messages and different levels of intensity,” Spadafore says.

He cites an axiom of marketing analytics: “The more you know about customers, the more you will be able to sell to them.”

Firms such as Polk and Urban Science first rolled out their versions of lead-scoring in response to dealers complaining about the quality of some of the third-party leads they were receiving, especially from referral companies that charged for them.

“There were a lot of bad leads,” Spadafore says. “It was all about quantity, not quality.”

Those flawed leads came from Internet users barely expressing an interest in buying a car. Frustrated by so many dead ends, many dealership sales people stopped taking online leads seriously.

It started a vicious cycle, with dealers beefing about cold prospects, and lead providers saying the leads didn’t pan out because dealerships mishandled them.

“Follow up was poor,” Spadafore says. “Back then, about half the leads never got responded to. If half the people who walked into a dealership were ignored, that would be a problem. It was realized something had to be done, and lead-scoring made a lot of sense.”

Information used to score Internet leads comes from assorted sources, such as data from auto makers indicating which prior Internet prospects became car buyers.

Other buying predictors include buying cycles, individuals coming off lease, auto-show attendees and the number of past visits to a dealership’s showroom and service department.

Another indicator of buying seriousness is how much someone writes in the “comments” field of a Web page’s lead-submission spot. The longer the comments, the more likely a person is to buy.

“Bottom line: The analytics work,” says Spadafore, adding, “Some dealers are doing a great job with lead-scoring. Some aren’t.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com