Article

Mountain View Auto Takes on the Virtual Frontier

December 2008, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by Kimberly Long - Also by this author

The sophistication of today’s technology and the size and scope of the Internet can be intimidating to some people, but not to the team at Mountain View Ford Lincoln Mercury and Mountain View Chevrolet in Chattanooga, Tenn. In fact, it might be hard to find a dealership that tackles the world of the virtual with as much gusto. Led by Don Erwin, Mountain View’s e-commerce department is going full speed ahead toward the goal of creating a true e-dealership.

Mountain View has been steadily working toward a stronger online presence for several years, striving to mold efforts into what Erwin described as “a full-fledged, go-after-it, no-holds-barred concept of e-commerce.” That concept has developed into a multi-layered and ever-evolving electronic marketing strategy.

Erwin launched Mountain View Ford’s e-commerce department in 2004 as a one-man operation. He described the store’s Internet efforts prior to that time as hit-and-miss. Running the department by himself gave Erwin the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of Internet sales from the point of view of a salesman and from a technological perspective, working with vendors, keeping the Web site up-to-date and managing inventory online. Within the first month under his management the department sold 17 vehicles, a significant increase from the dealership’s previous Internet sales of two or three per month.

Thereafter, the dealership maintained a solid online presence through its Web site and with the help of its eBay Motors store, which was established about five years ago. However, the real push toward establishing a true e-dealership began in May of 2007 when the Watson family, who also owns a Nissan franchise in addition to Mountain View Ford Lincoln Mercury, bought Chattanooga’s oldest dealership, Newton Chevrolet. Erwin, who had taken a year-long hiatus from the business in 2006, returned to head up Mountain View’s online efforts as the e-commerce director for both the Ford store and the newly-acquired Chevy store. He now manages an Internet sales team of five between the two stores.

Their efforts since that time have been multifaceted and creative, targeting the customer from all directions: multiple Web sites, eBay stores, YouTube, e-mail and soon, microsites. “We know what we want to get accomplished and this has been a relatively new medium, and as flexible as it is, there are just so many different ways to go about it,” said Andy Watson, dealer principal of Mountain View Chevrolet.

The most recent addition to Mountain View’s e-marketing efforts is the construction of new Web sites for both stores. Mountain View Ford’s new site, MVFord.com, went live in late June 2008. Its homepage features a different photo of downtown Chattanooga every 30 days, which Erwin said helps keep the site fresh. The site, designed with the help of TK Carsites, includes things like an “Easy Credit” button, live chat, vehicles under $10,000 and a link to DealerRater, an independent site where customers can post reviews of the dealership. Mountain View Chevrolet’s is also building a site to mirror the Ford store’s site.

Erwin reported a substantial difference in the store’s Web traffic within the first 10 weeks of the new site’s operation. “In that time frame, we have seen our traffic increase 30 percent and our Web site-specific lead volume jump rapidly. We believe [it’s] due to both great and ever-changing content and possibly the best SEO team in the e-automotive industry,” he said. He pointed out that TK’s optimization efforts have propelled the number of credit applications received online from about eight per month to four or five per day. He also boasted that the site’s bounce rate – the percentage of people who visit a site and leave without viewing any other pages – recently dipped below 2.75 percent.

Erwin revealed that in addition to the new Web sites, Mountain View is also making use of the Web sites provided by Ford and General Motors to showcase new inventory. These sites are available to them at no additional cost, and each store’s new site is joined to its corresponding manufacturer-sponsored site using a specific URL embedded as a link. Customers searching for a new vehicle on either of the stores’ Web sites will be routed to the correct page on the corresponding manufacturer-provided site.

Part of the reasoning behind this, Erwin said, was the belief that Ford and GM could provide the best possible presentation of new vehicle inventory. “Our manufacturers are all about building and selling new inventory,” he explained, “so they’re going to put the best foot forward that they possibly can.”

Another reason was each store would have the benefit of having another complete and fully-functional Web site – one more destination for a potential customer to land on – without incurring additional cost. To further maximize the potential of those manufacturer-provided sites, links have been added to those homepages to route the customer to the appropriate Mountain View store on eBay Motors.

Mountain View lists vehicles on eBay both locally and nationally. Erwin estimated that their presence on eBay Motors is responsible for a 15 percent increase in sales. In addition to eBay, Mountain View has also increased its online visibility by listing inventory with sites like AutoTrader.com, GetAuto and cars.com, as well as a multitude of other classified sites. Because keeping up with multiple Web listings is such a big job, Erwin enlisted some outside help to make it happen.

Dealer Specialties, which Erwin referred to as his inventory management and data distribution partner, provides the central point from which vehicle data and photos are sent to multiple online destinations. The company maintains feeds on sites listing Mountain View’s inventory, including sites like AutoTrader and cars.com, the stores’ own sites and dozens of other sites belonging to Dealer Specialties’ network. Using their Inventory Manager program, Erwin is able to manage inventory in one spot, have it displayed in multiple places on the Internet and not be concerned with keeping track of prices on the various sites. “This way, multiple sources are not polling my DMS; I don’t have to waste time making sure my prices are consistent in a multitude of online locations,” said Erwin. “A customer’s not going to pull up a car on AutoTrader.com and see one sale price and then pull it up on eBay Motors and see a different price.”

In addition to getting inventory out to as many online destinations as possible, Mountain View has turned to YouTube as another method for increasing the dealership’s visibility. In an effort to get more recognition in search engines like Google and Yahoo, Erwin and his team have started posting vehicle walk-around videos on YouTube. They record the videos themselves on a regular camera, showing the vehicle from all angles, inside and out, while discussing some of its features.

Erwin reported achieving great results with YouTube videos. He gave an example of a recent sale that ultimately resulted from one their videos: A man trying to find a car for his son searched Google for “2006 Mustang GT Chattanooga.” A video from Mountain View was in the top few search results. After viewing the video on YouTube, the man checked out the auction on eBay, made contact with the dealership and purchased the vehicle. “We are literally selling cars off YouTube video walk-arounds,” Erwin stated. Other video sites are picking up some of their videos from YouTube, giving them even more exposure without any additional effort by Mountain View.

While YouTube has helped grow the dealership’s online presence, the team at Mountain View is constantly looking for more ways to rate high on organic searches and drive traffic to their sites. According to Erwin, one of the most important things his team is working on is the dealership’s positioning on Google organic searches and business listings. To that end, Erwin and his team decided to look into purchasing more domain names and brainstormed names that would help them appear in search results and catch customers’ attention. So far, they have acquired approximately 35 to 40 different domain names. “We try to purchase five to ten at a time, so our annual cost so far is less than $500.” Erwin commented that he was surprised at the number of domain names available.

“Of course,” he continued, “once you have them, coming up with a creative way to use them is the next challenge.” Some of the domain names will be devoted to their latest venture, a soon-to-launch microsite campaign. “We’re going to be using, for instance, chattanooga best deals as a specific lead-generating microsite dealing with bargain budget vehicles,” he explained. “Anyone listening to a quick 15-second radio ad emphasizing great car deals will remember the words ‘Chattanooga best deals dot com.’”

All this figures into Mountain View’s ultimate goal of creating a true e-dealership, which requires increasing its online visibility and driving as much traffic as possible. “Our goal is, when someone searches anything automotive in our Chattanooga area, we want to be represented in the first two pages on every Google listing, and that is possible,” said Erwin.

Mountain View’s multifaceted e-marketing efforts have allowed the dealership to cease purchasing leads from third-party providers. For over a year, all leads have come from the manufacturers or have been generated by Mountain View’s various online efforts. “Our current lead mix is a good dose of Ford Direct and GM leads, eBay local and eBay national leads, Web site vehicle-specific, Web site credit apps … Web site coupon and test drive appointments,” said Erwin

This influx of organic leads has allowed Mountain View to scale back on traditional advertising. “We’ve reduced our budget as our Internet efforts have been … bearing more fruit,” said Watson. The traditional advertising Mountain View still utilizes has shifted focus to direct customers online. “I need to drive everybody that I can to the Web site because I’ve got a lot more time to spend with them once they get to the Web, as opposed to just a radio blip or a short commercial on a cable channel,” he explained.

While the dealership’s online efforts are successfully generating leads, not all of those leads result in immediate sales, which is why Mountain View needed one more e-marketing tactic. Erwin and his team have developed a 180-day follow-up process that utilizes their lead management system to automatically send e-mails to customers. If the salesperson has not heard from the customer since initial contact, vehicle-specific messages are sent to that customer at certain intervals. Templates for these e-mails have been developed over the past year and include things like e-brochures, video presentations from the manufacturer, and information from Edmunds and J.D. Powers. The messages can be discontinued at any time.  Erwin said this helps his team spend less time doing e-mail follow-ups and more time working with customers at the dealership or on the phone.

Erwin estimated that the percentage of sales coming from their online efforts was “between 25 and 30 percent—that we know of.” Watson pointed out that many of the customers who use Mountain View’s sites for research don’t necessarily identify themselves as Internet customers when they visit the store, meaning even more of the dealership’s business could be credited to their e-dealership.

Mountain View’s e-marketing efforts have expanded the dealership’s customer base and have helped keep business steady in a difficult economic climate. “You know, the industry’s changed and retracted,” Watson said. “I think it’s helped us maintain … it’s been a big tool in helping us keep going, keep our numbers up.” He added, “Don’s been pretty good at coming up with crazy ways to get the job done.”

There’s no time for Erwin and his Internet team to stop and pat themselves on the collective back. Technology continues to evolve, and Mountain View’s team intends for their e-dealership to evolve with it. Erwin said he and his team will always be looking for new and different ways to leverage technology to the dealership’s advantage.

Vol 5, Issue 11

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