LAS VEGAS – When dealer Brad Hensley returned to selling new cars after a stint with the police force, he immediately learned how to read HTML coding, brushed up on the latest trends on the Web and “hired a nerd.”

“If you don’t already have one, hire a nerd,” Hensley tells attendees at the DrivingSales Executive Summit here. “But you can’t have my nerd,” he quips, after revealing he is nearing $1 million in sales and $260,000 in profits this year at his independent dealership in Knoxville, TN.

Hensley is among a slew of experts who spoke at the conference this week, which is winding up today, on the importance of the Internet to dealers for both marketing and sales.

Using the Web is old hat for many dealers here, Hensley admits, but small details matter when it comes to closing a deal, such as having a proprietary email address rather than one hosted by Google or Yahoo, which he considers crucial.

Less than five years ago, dealers debated the value of having an Internet marketing department. At various sessions here, the debates centered on how much Internet marketing is too much.

Even direct email marketing is starting to get stale as a staple of dealers who once prided themselves on direct paper mail. “There’s been a misplaced emphasis on the past in our industry,” says Chip Perry, CEO of AutoTrader, an online automotive marketplace.

Jonathan Ord, CEO of the customer-relationship management firm DealerSocket, disagrees, saying if the resources are there, take advantage. “We see that leads from every single source convert into sales. If you ask dealers, they want as many leads as they can get their hands on.”

By using Internet-based and traditional leads, Ord believes dealers to be like Sam’s bar in the TV sitcom “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name. “With (customer-relations management) and with data, we could do that,” he says. “You can have the customer feel like an honored guest every single time they come into your store.”

Search-engine optimization also is a priority, the experts agree, particularly with Google, some say. Using almost everything under the Google umbrella – including Google Plus, YouTube and Google Docs – keeps dealers at the top of online search results.

“Create a hashtag, tag it on Instagram (an online service for sharing photos). “They will wind up creating social content for you,” says Eric Miltsch, of Auction Direct USA, a chain of used-car superstores.

“Social content is important because (that’s what) Google is looking for to rank your pages,” he says in reference to tagging inventory photos or snapshots of customers with their new vehicle purchase.

All agree that everyone in the showroom needs to be somewhat adept at online marketing as the tide changes.

“The whole thing is digital today,” Perry says. “There’s a whole lot of touch-points for customers. The whole store needs to get involved in this. There still are too many different moving parts, when all of them can be integrated today.”

afoley@wardsauto.com