As featured on the May 2023 cover of AutoSuccess Magazine
Sales are down. Leads are down. Foot traffic is down. We have the wrong cars, and rates aren’t helping, but boy, does it feel like something just isn’t working right. Is it the website? Are the chat and digital retailing tools set up right? Do we need to switch third-party lead providers? One thing is for sure… We need to change something.
This story is playing out in stores across the country, and you’ve either already made some vendor changes, or you’re shopping for options. I bet you’re hearing a lot of strong claims. Some are the familiar claims we’ve heard for years, while some sound fresh. There are undoubtedly truths in the mix, but so — damn — much of what you’re hearing is just vendors slinging their latest, greatest shiny thing that will get you to sign on the dotted line.
Without naming names and taking shots, let’s go through some of the technologies and marketing types that you’re using or looking at. We’ll investigate the claims and pull back the curtain on the pitfalls so you know how to ask intelligent questions and avoid stepping in it.
Fast! Easy! All-in-One! – Websites
Modern marketing largely revolves around your website, with most of the other tools and vendors either existing on your website or sending traffic there. Your website vendor selection is important and will have far-reaching effects beyond just its look and feel. Unfortunately, competition has leveled in a world of OEM mandates, and while they take your money, you aren’t their customer.
Today, website vendors must appeal to OEMs to be on “the list.” That means they focus more on OEM compliance and on rigid, replicable templates that match the brand image. Once they’re OEM approved, they just have to bait you into signing up to get that recurring check. They know they’re a pain to cancel, so they’ll say all kinds of things to get you in the door. Like what, you ask?
Speed! They all claim to be fast, and we all know that’s important. Google likes it, and they like it because consumers like it. Some of the vendors can even claim this truthfully and show you a demo site with fantastic speed test scores. The problem is that automotive websites are naturally loaded with tools like chat, retailing, trade and finance, and with tracking scripts like analytics, Google Ads, and heat mapping to see where people click. These will all slow down a site. Heat mapping scripts are one of the worst offenders when it comes to slowing down a site. You’re being upsold on a feature that hurts their claimed benefit… Yikes.
We see a lot is website vendors touting themselves as one-stop shops. Use them for your website, chat, digital retailing, SEO, SEM, social, and more! In practice, they all compartmentalize their services, leaving you to deal with separate teams who don’t communicate. The one-stop shop is really one place to get poor service.
The one thing we don’t hear website vendors talking about these days is customer service. It’s important that you get a single point of contact who has been there for a while. There are factually better and worse website platforms, but within the few decent ones, the difference will be in how you use them and which vendors you hire to help. Whether you have responsive and competent support will be much more impactful than the claimed tech differentiators.
A good rule of thumb in 2023 is this… If you’re even reasonably happy with your website vendor, the grass is most likely not greener on the other side. It’ll just sound that way.
Local! More Traffic! Free Audit! – SEO Agencies
Let’s start with the free SEO audit.
The idea is simple… SEO is hard to understand, and you’d like to understand your position better. A vendor offers you a free analysis, and you jump at it so you can self-orient and ask your current vendor questions. The trouble is that many SEO vendors have taken this and made it quick and formulaic, so they can up their odds of signing up dealers, and what you get might as well be in Latin.
The way this often goes is that you agree to the audit, and the vendor produces a report with dozens of pass-fail observations about technical parameters you don’t understand. A lot comes back as a fail or partial fail, and you get a score that seems alarming.
Next, you forward the report to your current vendor or roughly rephrase the failure points as questions. You don’t fully understand the meaning of your questions or the “nothing to worry about” answers your vendor sends back. The result is that you’re a little more confused, and you didn’t learn much.
Not to worry, there are good SEO audits out there — I like to think we offer one of them. They should use objective measurements and be presented with plain facts that anyone can understand. You rank for “Used Cars” here, but you don’t rank for “Used Cars” here.
We see a lot of SEO vendors talking about “Local SEO” like it’s a precious commodity and theirs is the purest Local SEO around. Local SEO is just an industry buzzword with no specific meaning. If you vet SEO vendors, don’t focus on whether they repeat the buzzwords. Ask what they will produce, what it will accomplish, and how that translates to the goal of cars sold and service appointments scheduled. SEO execution may be complex, but the answers should be clear and focused on leads, not traffic.
Lowest CPC! Advanced Software! – SEM Agencies
Did you know that in Google Ads (AdWords), you can set a campaign to be optimized for “Clicks or Conversions,” and virtually every SEM/PPC vendor is pushing Clicks? The dealer community has become so focused on how many clicks and VDPs we get that vendors have adjusted to serve that purpose more so than the conversions you really want.
Every time you interact with your SEM vendor or the ones you’re vetting, your focus should be on how this will produce more conversions. The first question should be, “Is this campaign conversion or click-optimized?” The next, “Where are you landing the traffic?” Ask common sense questions and find that your rep often doesn’t know more than you do.
SEM vendors have gotten increasingly complacent, and not one of the mainstream SEM vendors does a good job without you pressing, asking questions, and engaging in meaningful dialogue with an empowered rep who wants to work with you.
“But my SEM vendor has advanced bid software and first-party data, so they don’t have to mess with it.” Do they? And if so, is that better? The first-party data usually isn’t a lie, but its value typically is. If you want to move trucks, and I told you I have a targetable first-party audience of truck shoppers, that would sound pretty good, right? What if I told you that the audience came from registration data 90 days old, and they’re truck shoppers because they bought trucks? Not so useful when they just bought what you wanted to sell them!
How about that advanced bid software or AI they claim to use to update things faster than humans can? Well, that can be an advantage, but a human still needs to be tuning it to your needs and looking for new avenues to optimize performance. AI and automation are useful tools, but someone has to communicate your needs to them for anything useful to happen. Otherwise, they’ll do a wonderful job of getting you the most traffic for the lowest cost without focusing on where it landed or what it accomplished.
Ask more questions or engage a consultant who can help you with SEM accountability. Don’t be fooled by the shortcuts and slick claims unless they’re backed up by an explanation of their attentiveness and the human element that should be steering.
More Efficient Together! – SEO / SEM Agencies
This is one that we’ve heard more in the last six months, especially from website vendors trying to spin up new profit centers in SEM and SEO. The claim goes like this… You should have the same vendor for SEO and SEM because the SEO efforts will make your SEM more efficient, and when one vendor does them both, they can sync up strategies. This is true, in theory…
The reality is that no combined SEO/SEM agency in automotive is doing a good job of both. We also have not encountered one where the SEO and SEM teams talk to each other, which completely defeats the claim! The purported increase in efficiency actually turns out to be a cookie-cutter SEO program and complacent SEM. As of May 2023, we don’t know of a company doing both services well under one umbrella, and the website vendors are the words offenders.
Most Impressions! First Party Data! – Social Ads Vendors
What do you want from your social media ad? Branding? Direct Leads? Website Leads? You need to start with an objective and then make sure your vendor is aligned.
Branding with social media is great, but in my experience, the number one thing dealers want from their social media ads is converting traffic. Why, then, are vendors so focused on metrics like impressions and reach when they aren’t important to the objective of conversions?
Another thing we see a lot in the social ads space is vendors running a dozen or more granular ads with narrow focuses. Incentives by model, OEM sales events, video ads for five different models… Facebook — still the best ROI-driving social ads platform in 2023 — no longer provides you or your vendor with detailed targeting options that were once available. There’s no way to target each of those granular campaigns to the audience that would react to them. Your vendor would be doing you a favor if they advised you to stop pushing them and broaden your ads to apply to more people!
“But my vendor uses first-party data for our targeting.” In social ads, the first-party data is either not useful or is expensive to procure. The latter can work from a targeting perspective but only applies well to large markets and drives ad efficiency down to the point that social media advertising ceases to be attractive compared to other marketing.
That was a lot of doom and gloom, so what are you supposed to do? Look for a vendor who is focused on generating conversions, first and foremost. The method doesn’t matter much if the measured result is quality conversions. A common thread to look for in good social ads vendors is those who focus on tested platforms (Facebook is for conversions, TikTok is for branding) and advise you on what ads will help you reach your objectives. As a bonus, those on flat-rate management fees are not incentivized to recommend exorbitant budgets. $1000-3000/mo is the useful range in over 90% of cases.
Penciled Deals! – Digital Retailing
Digital retailing tools have been around for about five years now. They are a functional conversion pathway when they’re done right, but be wary of what they’re not.
The promise we were all sold on was penciled deals. By the time the customer came in, they would already have the deal ready with a bank selected and pre-approval done. They’d just need to have them look over the car and head into the box for signatures, right? Not so much.
In practice, DR tools are rarely used to get further than payment calculation with trade factored in. The consumer wants a relatively accurate monthly payment, and they will stop going further into the tool’s capabilities once they have that. Put the payment too late in the progression, and they’ll abandon it before submitting their contact info.
Many DR tools are well made, but sell dealers on the promise of every feature and widget available. Focus more on how the customer will use it and what you want from them. They want payment, and you want their contact info. That means don’t ask for more than basic contact info until later in the process. Focus on getting them to enter their trade info and ask them for their contact info right before they get the payment. The mistake we see a lot is dealers trying to use every feature available and loading them too early. This actually hurts your conversion rate, and you often pay extra for these features that customers don’t use.
70% of Car Shoppers Visit Us! – Third Party Providers
Cars.com, CarGurus, AutoTrader, etc.. Like everything else above, they do have a place in an overall marketing plan, and some work better than others, depending on the market. However, their marketing stats can be deceiving.
Let’s imagine you’re with third-party A, and they tell you that 70% of all car shoppers visit their site during their journey to a purchase. Sounds pretty important that you be visible there, huh?
Now let’s imagine their claim is true, but 60 of the 70% only visit to compare prices for the year and miles that they’re looking at, and they don’t convert or engage with the dealer from the third-party site. While the stats can’t be known precisely, this is at least fairly close to the truth and explains why third parties often seem necessary but produce so poorly for their cost.
The moral of the story? Third parties can be useful for higher-cost leads when the market is pulling back, but don’t buy into the hype. Measure them for their actual lead production and challenge their claims, and your own assumptions, frequently.
24k Gold vs Fools Gold
Vendors all bait you with something; we all have to market somehow. The trouble is that so many rely on slick concepts to wow you or overload you with information to scare you. We have a marketing offer like any other vendor, but we offer a no-obligation audit of dealers’ SEO, using objective tools that show dealers what they rank for on Google and where they hold those rankings (or don’t). Contrast this with the SEO reports filled with 100 data points that you can’t understand or vet, and you can see the difference.
You should expect distilled and easy-to-understand explanations from vendors you’re using and vendors you’re vetting. If they don’t understand you and your business well enough to keep things digestible, you may want to press them harder or look elsewhere.