Recent U.S. Census figures estimate that by 2042, one third of the population in the U.S. will be Hispanic, with the vast majority being born in the U.S. Depending on where they’re located, many dealers have reached out to this market with varying degrees of success. Traditional media outlets and grass roots campaigns within Hispanic communities remain by far the most popular and some say, effective in attracting Latino customers.

But what about the Internet?

Nationwide, dealers are leveraging the power of the Internet like never before. Websites designed for performance, along with search engine optimization and search engine marketing campaigns have been proven to increase visitors, leads and sales. Yet few dealers have Spanish websites or have otherwise reached out to the Hispanic market with the same Internet marketing techniques they deploy with their English-speaking customer base. The reasons for this are varied.

“This market has been ignored in many ways,” says George Magda, director-Marketing with Burt Automotive Group in Denver, CO. “There’s a perception by many companies that not as many Hispanic speaking consumers are Internet savvy consumers, but that’s not the case. In my experience they utilize the Internet more than the market gives them credit for.”

A recent study by emarketer supports this theory. In a February 2008 report titled U.S. Hispanic Media Usage, emarketer found that 23 million Hispanics are currently online, or about 52% of the US Hispanic population. By 2012, 30 million Hispanics will be online.

Another reason dealers haven’t extended Spanish marketing to the Internet is the perception that many Hispanic U.S. citizens are bi-lingual, and can therefore “make do” with searching in English and using English websites. “There are very few statistics on the amount of Hispanics in the U.S. that are online and searching in Spanish,” says Gilbert Chavez, owner of CarZeus (www.carzeus.com), an Internet sales consulting company . “My opinion is a bit controversial in that I think there is a small market in terms of the number of Hispanics who are searching in Spanish. I think the majority of Hispanics Google in English.”

But if there were more websites with Spanish content, would Hispanic customers search in Spanish?

Build It And They Will Come. Or Will They?

Dealers who have launched websites with Spanish content have had mixed results. “A lot of people have gone after this market but in the wrong way,” Magda says. “Just because you say something in Spanish doesn’t mean you are going to attract customers.” Magda advises dealers to pay attention to their local market. In Denver, Burt Automotive caters to customers who are predominantly from northern Mexico, so the website was created with elements that specifically target to that clientele. “Our customers are family oriented and buy a lot of trucks and larger vehicles,” Magda says.

BURTenEspanol (www.BURTenEspanol.com) is the automotive group’s Spanish site that launched in mid-September. Created by Dealer.com, it’s the only all-Spanish language automotive portal for a large dealer group. In the first month, BURTenEspanol attracted an average of 20-35 unique visitors per day. With the addition of a Spanish language SEM campaign, the number of unique visitors doubled within one week to more than 40 per day. Additionally, the click-through rates are close to .2%, nearly quadruple the national average of .05%. “This is significant because the overall trend with our other websites has been down or just slight increases because of the market,” says Magda. “But the Spanish site is trending upwards and we are projecting the number of visitors to more than double in the next month.”

DARCARS Automotive Group (www.355.com) in Rockville, MD, also is upgrading its website to include Spanish language. “We do quite a bit of traditional marketing to the Hispanic market, including signs in the windows, radio and TV spots and newspapers,” says Navid Mogharabi, e-Marketing Manager for DARCARS.“We have been getting more leads from Hispanic customers through our own site as well as Toyota’s corporate site which has Spanish links on it.”

On a good day, 355 Toyota receives about 20 leads through its website, and on average four of those leads are in Spanish.

“I think the Hispanic market is still undergoing an education process,” says Obeth Davila, a former Internet director with a large auto group in Roseville, CA, and currently a CRM consultant and owns www.ldcreditlaw.com, a credit consulting firm. “Even though a lot of Hispanics are online, a lot of them are still uncomfortable doing business online. Latino customers are very personal, they like to talk to someone or see someone, and the Internet is very impersonal.”

Davila recommends that dealers with Spanish websites make them very personal and approachable, and offer treatment as if customers are family. These and other tactics can be used to build loyalty and trust in the Hispanic market.

Perhaps the most important aspect of launching a Spanish website is getting it “found.” Just as with English websites, search-engine optimization (SEO) and search-engine marketing (SEM) are key to attracting new customers. Lomberto Pérez Plasencia, president-Inter-Marketing Promotions, Inc. (www.inter-mktg.com) , a company that helps dealers target the Hispanic market, recently worked with Google and Yahoo to create a SEM campaign for a dealership’s Spanish website that is generating approximately 4,000 unique visitors a month.

“I believe that right now potential is there for dealers to reach and dominate the Hispanic market on the Internet, because not that many people are doing it and there’s hardly any competition,” he said, citing examples of many Spanish websites that do very well, including Univision, the largest Spanish television network in the U.S. “Univision’s website generates a tremendous amount of traffic,” Plasencia says.

Dealer.com search engine optimized and created a search-engine marketing campaign for BURTenEspanol. “Anything that can be done in English can be done in Spanish,” says Dean Evans, Chief Marketing Officer with Dealer.com.

If executed properly, a Spanish website with SEO/SEM is certain to generate traffic. Perhaps the greatest challenges involved in reaching the Hispanic market arise from the website itself. If a dealer is thinking about launching a Spanish website, it would pay to keep in mind the following strategies.

Diversity Within Diversity

Though many studies and companies focus on the Hispanic population, it’s important to keep in mind that not all Hispanic speaking customers are the same and cannot be classified as one market. They are from many different countries with different cultures, customs and even significant differences in their languages.

“The majority of Hispanics in our area are from Chihuahua, Mexico, so I can easily target that segment with a certain type of advertising,” Magda says.

The Hispanic market in Maryland is a bit more diverse. “We have customers from El Salvador, Colombia, Argentina, Cuba, everywhere,” Mogharabi says. “For that reason we made a decision to rely on textbook Spanish for our marketing.”

The study from emarketer notes that the vast majority of Hispanics born in the U.S. are bilingual and proud of their origins, so marketers cannot assume that English-language campaigns will reach them effectively.

Creation vs. Translation

Dealers who believe that translating several pages of their website into Spanish might do the job will probably meet with less than stellar success. Many website providers offer products that translate into Spanish, but Plasencia warns that some of the translation techniques are so grammatically literal they end up being incorrect. “Relying 100% on software is a token effort and will offend the Hispanic customer because the language is improper,” he says.

Instead, Plasencia advises dealers to create an entirely new website that incorporates verbage designed to appeal to the local market and customs.

Magda agrees. BURTenEspanol was created from the ground up to appeal to the local market. “I made a point to use not only the correct language, but verbage at a higher education level,” he says. “I think a lot of dealers make the mistake of dumbing down their marketing. I see commercials targeted to Hispanic customers that focus on used cars and bad credit, with scantily clad women. It’s a bit embarrassing to most Latinos. I think dealers need to raise their level of professionalism when they reach out to this market.”

Evans with Dealer.com recommends creating a “hybrid” Spanish website. The look, feel and general verbiage can be targeted specifically to the local market’s customs, but dealers can also take advantage of a translation software that will automatically update areas of the site that are changed frequently, such as inventory.

“The thought of creating and maintaining an entirely different website is a bit daunting to many dealers, but our experience is that a happy medium is possible,” he says.

Infrastructure and Buy-In

If a dealer does decide to launch a Spanish website, it’s imperative they have the infrastructure within the dealership to handle the resulting traffic.

“A dealership should staff not only bi-lingual salespeople but also a bilingual receptionist who can answer phones and greet customers as they walk in,” Plasencia says.

“As a business, you need to take all the right measures to provide the market with what they are looking for,” Mogharabi says. “Specifically, a sales force that can speak and write the language fluently, since e-mails are critical for following up.”

Another potential obstacle to success sometimes comes from above. “It’s really important to ask within the organization, do the top executives have a buy in?” Magda says. “The owners of Burt Automotive are on board with this 100%. This is our future and we are going to grow with the market and we fully expect to dominate the market. Our research has shown that this sector is huge, their incomes are high and their buying power is significantly high. We expect it won’t be long before BURTenEspanol makes a return on investment.”

The rewards for dealers who reach out to the Latino market on the Internet may still be uncertain, but without doubt they are potentially huge. In less than thirty years, nearly one-third of the U.S. population will be Hispanic.

“It’s a continuously growing market and I am happy that from a corporate level down, from Toyota to our GM, everyone is on board and we are reaching out to this segment, because this market is making money and spending money and they want to purchase vehicles,” says Mogharabi.

“The research I have seen indicates that Hispanic customers feel more comfortable and grateful to companies that make the effort to reach out to them,” Plasencia says. And fast on the heels of comfort and appreciativeness brings the ultimate driving factor to a dealership’s future success: loyalty.