Some auto dealers had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” into the Internet world, says Howard Polirer, AutoTrader.com's director-industry relations.

His job is to preach the need for online automotive marketing in the modern age. Polirer, a former dealership salesman, has conducted training workshops for thousands of dealers across the country.

He's run into a few skeptics along the way, although most have become converts.

“At least they now understand the need to be on the Internet,” he says. “But it has to be at a higher level than most dealers are at now. There's a right way and a wrong way to do it, and the majority of dealers are not doing it right.”

The right way: “Two words: exceed expectations,” he says. “A dealer's competition is no longer 10-20 miles away, it's a click away. So a dealership needs the best online pictures, comments and videos.”

Videos have become “must-dos” for dealer websites, Polirer says. “They could be vehicle walk-arounds, but what I've been seeing done very effectively are customer-testimonial videos.”

Only about 10%-20% of auto dealers use Web videos, yet those that do increase sales, he says. “Videos have proven to be more compelling at getting customers to do something.”

The wrong way to market cars online? Polirer counts the ways.

“One, throw up a lot of stuff and hope people find what they are looking for. Two, post photos of cars with snow on them, even though the snow has since melted. Three, shoot bad photos, such as showing the shadow of the person taking the picture.”

Then there's uninspired online text accompanying car photos. “Starting off by saying a car has McPherson struts is not going to spark much customer interest. It's unlikely a guy will turn to his wife and say, ‘Gee honey, this one has McPherson struts.’”

More effective are descriptive words that allow consumers to “see, taste and feel that car,” he says. “Remember the old Chrysler Cordoba ad from the 1970s with Ricardo Montalban touting its ‘Corinthian leather’? That was a great commercial.

“I worked at a Chevy store at the time, and we had people coming in asking for Corinthian leather seats.”

Today's steps to a car sale go something like this: customer visits dealership website, e-mails dealership and gets call from salesperson who arranges an appointment at the dealership.

“It's up to me as a salesperson to bring the customer to the store,” Polirer says. “If I can do that, they're there for one reason. To buy a car.”

But just because a customer didn't follow that step-by-step process doesn't mean the Internet didn't play a key role.

“More and more ‘Internet customers’ just walk into the dealership without prior contact,” Polirer says. “They are people who have visited a dealership's website. Today all customers are Internet customers in some form or another.”

A study by Cars.com supports that.

Many in-market car buyers who have been on the Internet quickly “take the next step toward a purchase on the most direct path: an in-store visit,” says Dennis Galbraith, a Cars.com, vice president.

He adds: “These shoppers may not call or e-mail first, so the information they find online determines the dealers they select.

“Dealers who fully merchandise their complete inventory with multiple pictures, descriptive sell copy and competitive pricing are the ones who position themselves to win.”

Tips for Effective Dealership Websites

  • Use videos to highlight the product or the store.
  • Post high-quality vehicle photos — and lots of them. If the spring thaw has occurred, make sure the photos don't show snow on the ground or, worse, the cars.
  • Use descriptive words in the text accompanying photos. Try to appeal to a customer's emotional side, rather than just inundate them with technical automotive data.