Many dealers today consider their websites only to be an advertising medium. Even some third-party lead generators refer to dealership websites as simply another way to advertise.

The thought process goes like this:

Sure, the Internet can generate sales, but people really can’t buy cars online (when was the last time a car was delivered over the Internet?). Until people can take delivery online, the Internet will be nothing more than the equivalent of a newspaper, radio or television ad, albeit ads with greater accountability.

The reality, though, is that the website is more than another medium to advertise – it is an extension of the dealership showroom. Research indicates that about 70% of customers’ first experience with a dealership is through the website.

Dealerships succeeding online use their websites to create virtual showrooms that make it easy for shoppers to become prospective buyers.

The fundamental objective of a dealership website should be converting lookers into leads. “Transaction is the primary key for us – getting the customer to raise a hand and say, ‘Here I am,’” says Gary Marcotte, vice president-new vehicles and e-commerce for AutoNation Inc.

Those dealerships that view the website as a vehicle for advertising are throwing a lot of cool things up on their sites but have little focus as to what the site can accomplish, contends Sean Wolfington, co-owner of BZResults.com.

“Dealers need to recognize that the website is not the most important part of the equation,” says Wolfington. “There’s a mistaken assumption that, ‘if you build, they will come.’ But that isn’t always the case.”

Instead, the key is having a simple website that fosters leads and a process to follow up on those leads.

Take the AutoNation websites, for example. “I’ll tell you this, our sites are not the slickest ones you’ve ever seen,” Marcotte says with no apology. “Frankly, we don’t care. What we’re trying to do is sell cars. We’ve done a lot of research with a lot of people and when they come to a dealership website they either want to find a car or find a location. They don’t want to enrich their lives.”

It’s all about converting traffic into leads. But it’s not rare to see a dealership’s conversion rate as low as 1%. There are a couple, though, that are converting almost 25% of their traffic into hand raisers, says Wolfington. Most fall into that 2%-5% range, according to AutoNation’s research.

Despite being a pioneer in retailing cars online and an organization that gets it, AutoNation still is looking for answers. It has a conversion ratio of only 7 1/2 %, according to Marcotte. It’s a statistic that the company agonizes over, he admits.

cbanks@primediabusiness.com