Eliza Kelly recalls when she and other automotive digital-marketing pioneers were trying to convince car dealers they needed their own websites.

She encountered resistance from some dealers. “They said, ‘Why do I need a website? I just want to sell cars.’ They didn’t recognize the value of websites at the time.

“We also got pushback from some dealers when we suggested they answer e-mails once a day,” says Kelly, vice president-marketing for Dealer.com, an online service provider.

That was in the late 1990s; not that long ago, but eons in Internet years. Now, automotive digital experts urge dealerships to answer emails within minutes or risk losing a sales lead.

And today, virtually all dealerships have websites, Kelly notes. “I think the last holdout was a dealer in northern Canada.” He belatedly joined the party a few years ago.

In 1997, while with The Cobalt Group, a digital-marketing firm that began as a website designer, Kelly sensed the Internet forever would change auto retailing.

But working in a new field, “with your head down and dealing with people who sell cars for a living,” she had no detailed vision of exactly how the Internet would transform things.

Now she knows.

“Social media and search are the two big drivers today,” Kelly says. “Combined, they are incredible.”

Search-engine optimization and search-engine marketing now are mainstream ways to draw customers into the virtual dealership that is a website and, eventually, to the dealership itself to buy a car.

Social media has exerted its influence in many ways, especially by giving consumers online forums to share opinions and rate dealers.

“A ‘wow’ moment for me was realizing the power of the consumer to write and post content on social-media sites,” Kelly says.

Dealer-rating websites have proliferated in recent years. “You figured that if people were rating hotels and restaurants, it eventually would happen with big-ticket items like cars,” she says.

Because so many consumers now use social media to share and rate their car-shopping and buying opinions, reputation management has become an important part of many dealers’ Internet strategies.

“Developing customer trust is so important to dealers,” Kelly says. “The dealers who do that are the ones who get people to say, ‘Yeah, I want to buy a car from that dealership.’”

She joined Dealer.com a few weeks ago. Since then, Accel Partners equity firm has become a minority investor in the company. Accel was an early investor in Facebook, Groupon and Rovio/Angry Birds, online ventures that are well known today.

“Accel’s investment is a big vote of confidence,” says Kelly “The leadership they are going to bring will be a big boost for us. Dealer.com’s pace of development is astounding. It’s one of the reasons I came here.”

She succeeds Dean Evans, who became Subaru’s chief marketing officer.

Kelly recently worked as a consultant on a research project surveying in-market car shoppers’ use of social media. “We were pleasantly surprised at how people use it and expect to use it,” she says.

She declines to say more than that until the study’s findings are presented at the annual J.D. Power and Associates Internet Roundtable in Las Vegas in October.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com