Article

Auction Direct USA Networks its Way to the Top

July 2010, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by Jennifer Murphy Bloodworth - Also by this author


As the Internet director of Auction Direct USA, Eric Miltsch does more than respond to Internet inquires received through the store’s main Web site, AuctionDirectUSA.com. He’s not an Internet director in a traditional sense, and most stores would probably do well to have their Internet managers follow in his footsteps. “My focus is really just the entire online experience … building our online brand, getting that footprint out through as many different channels as possible. Obviously, with the explosion of all the social channels, that makes it a lot easier, especially with all the other platforms we have,” said Miltsch.

One of his goals for the Victor, N.Y.-based dealership is “to really get away from having one primary property. We don’t need to be just one Web site.” He added, “If we have 1,500 vehicles, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have 1,500 Web sites.” While the dealership isn’t anywhere near
 Auction Direct USA
1,500 sites, in addition to the main site, Auction Direct also has a blog (WhyBuyUsedCars.com), a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account, and TweetAndGreet.com.

The blog, while informative for consumers, is a “major piece” of Auction Direct’s search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Miltsch said, “Just being able to link our main Web site to our automotive-related blog is the major anchor in that strategy … For instance, I just published a blog a couple hours ago, a nice service-related article [with] some decent value-added automotive car maintenance tips. Anybody that understands SEO will understand just by looking at the article what the keywords are in that article from the links I placed in there.” He makes sure to post new blog content at least a couple of times a week and said he would “love to be able to do one a day, but that’s just difficult with all the stuff going on.”

On Facebook and Twitter, Miltsch doesn’t want just anyone to become a fan of the dealership’s Facebook fan page and follow his tweets. “If Facebook is going to call it a fan page, I want to have people that are legitimate fans of ours,” he said. Their fan page currently has over 400 fans.

Nowadays, most dealers with any Internet savvy are on Facebook. “What everybody is doing at this point [is] quite honestly the same exact thing … It’s like their Facebook fan page just turned into the basic boring Saturday newspaper full-page display ad that you see every other dealer do.” That means dealerships like Auction Direct must be on their toes and ready to change in order to stay ahead of the online curve and stand out on Facebook.

Miltsch acknowledged, “It’s to the point where now I have to question what I’m doing there, and how can I continue to push that needle ahead and do something extremely different.” He continued, “If you look at some of the larger brands, something like Papa John’s Pizza, they do an amazing job with their interaction and the stuff they do within their pages all the way down to page layout and custom designs … that’s what you can look to expect out of somebody like us in that space.” Papa John’s has regular interaction with its fans through various contests and includes pages within its fan page that allow people to buy gift certificates and place orders online.

As something of a Twitter veteran, Miltsch has been tweeting for Auction Direct for about two years and has over 11,600 followers. Over the years, the dealership’s Twitter presence has evolved to the point where the dealership can directly track sales back to the social networking phenomenon. “When I first started everything … it was really just about branding us and creating that initial presence … and building some type of authority voice for ourselves in the market,” he said. “It’s like we’ve breached that critical point where we have the acceptance, and now it’s just a matter of building on that.”

Upon joining Twitter, his tweets were “more subtle commercialism … and luckily, I guess a majority of it was positively received. It wasn’t too brash and in-your-face.” Before Twitter could make a big difference in the business, the dealership had to be accepted by other Twitterers. Once the dealership was accepted, Miltsch said, the next step was to “create the engagement level between the people we were in fact connected with.”

To engage Auction Direct Twitter followers, he took a page out of CNN’s book – or a tweet off their Twitter feed, if you will – and started engaging people by asking questions. He said CNN was “asking one random question in their Twitter feed, and so many people would respond to that.” For the dealership, the questions “needed to have something that would tie back to the automotive side of things.” He started with “one or two questions here and there,” which generated “a ton” of responses.

With the popularity of the Q&A interaction, Miltsch wanted to “do something a little more formal,” so he set up TweetAndGreet.com, a Web site for longer-form Twitter interviews. To test how people would react to this new concept, he put together a list of 10 car-related questions and sent out 20 invitations to people to take the interview. “I had hoped to get one back or two, and I got 18 back in about 10 minutes.” Quite the response rate! The questions he included in the interview are fun and nostalgic. A few of the questions include: What was your first car? Any significant memories w/that car? Favorite vehicle … if money were no object?

Over the past year-and-a-half to two years, over 300 people have taken the Tweet and Greet interview, and people oftentimes repost their interview once it’s on TweetAndGreet.com to their own blogs or link to it from their social network profiles, driving more traffic to TweetAndGreet.com, which is, of course, linked to the dealership’s main site. To take the interview, TweetAndGreet.com pushes people to the dealership’s blog at WhyBuyUsedCars.com.
Eric Miltsch, Internet Director, Auction Direct USA "The feedback and response that we get from [TweetAndGreet.com], it's like nothing that I've been able to experience in any other type of effort because it's so different and unique ..."

- Eric Miltsch, Internet Director, Auction Direct USA

With so much focus on Web pages other than the dealership’s flagship site, other dealers might neglect their main page. Such is not the case with AuctionDirectUSA.com. It’s clearly not a cookie-cutter site, with unique features like a Meebo bar, a customer feedback tab and live online auctions.  

One recently implemented aspect of AuctionDirectUSA.com – the Meebo bar – was discovered by Miltsch on Mashable.com (which labels itself as “The Social Media Guide”). Although the Meebo bar has been around for some time now, it is new to the automotive industry. The Meebo bar lets Auction Direct’s customers share any page on AuctionDirectUSA.com via Twitter, Facebook and/or e-mail without having to leave the dealership site. It also allows people to chat via Google, AIM, Facebook, MySpace and Meebo while on AuctionDirectUSA.com without having to leave the site.

Of the Meebo bar, he said, “As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I contacted Meebo and just struck up a relationship with them … They were ecstatic to be able to bring [in] the retail automotive market.” It’s inclusion on the site has garnered much praise. “It’s only been there for a couple of months, but the feedback has been phenomenal. It’s a great tool just in terms of being able to share content. There’s no reason why we can’t make it even easier to share anything on our Web site.” Some days, people share upwards of 200 AuctionDirectUSA.com pages. “The amount of shared pages that we’ve experienced continues to explode.”

While much of the page sharing is among consumers, the Meebo bar has also proved beneficial for the dealership’s customer care center, which fields all e-mails and phone calls to the dealership and sets appointments for the sales staff. “It just makes it a little bit more efficient for our customer care reps” said Miltsch, because they can use the Meebo bar to quickly send a Web page over to a potential customer who might be looking for a specific vehicle or page on the Web site.

He added, “Even better is when customers are in the showroom. If a wife is shopping and she says, ‘Oh I really want to show this to my husband.’ Rather than trying to open Web mail for her to copy and paste, she can simply click on the picture and send it to her husband. We’ve even had a the wife send it, the husband’s out, he gets it on his phone, sees a picture of it, and then says, ‘Oh yes, that’s fine. Go ahead.’”

The customer feedback tab is anchored to the left side of the page, so that it’s always present for customers browsing the site. It allows customers to post ideas about how to make the site better, and some customers even return to the site to post comments about their buying experience at the store. To Miltsch, it’s another listening tool, which is vital to improving customers’ online experiences.

He said being able to listen has “truly helped” improve the dealership’s Web presence. Whether he’s “tossing out usability and design questions” on Twitter about something on the Web site or receiving feedback from the feedback tab or blog, he can improve his customers’ overall buying experiences by implementing the best suggestions.

The live online auctions incorporated into the dealership site operate similar to eBay auctions, but the “only major difference,” according to Miltsch, is “we’re showing you what the reserve price is.” Customers can log in and bid for cars, and as long as a bid is at or above reserve price, a customer can purchase the car. If there are no other bidders, the customer can buy a vehicle at reserve price. However, there have been some instances when two or more customers have been after the same vehicle, creating a bidding war, allowing the final price paid for the vehicle to be determined by the winning bid.

While not all customers are confident enough to buy a car through an online auction, the auctions generate questions that often result in sales. Miltsch said, “I see it as being a nice first step for us to work towards creating a fully-online process where somebody can essentially buy a car from start to finish. I don’t think the industry or the consumer market is at that point just yet, but I think this is at least one way for us to pave the way to get to that point.”

Although he has led the dealership to the forefront of Internet marketing, Miltsch credited the CEO of AuctionDirect, John Iannone, for giving him the “autonomy … to be creative and be a little bit progressive and cutting-edge to try new stuff as long as it fit into our main objective.”

The About Us page of AuctionDirectUSA.com spells out the dealership’s main objective: “Auction Direct USA is committed to revolutionizing and legitimizing the used car business, guided by the principles of trust and open information exchange, to provide a truly unique and satisfying automotive purchase experience for every guest, in every way.” All the social channels the dealership interact with, along with the features incorporated into the main site, certainly help with the open exchange of information.

The company is keeping in step with its promise to provide a unique experience. Its latest store happens to be located in a mall, opposite an Abercrombie & Fitch store, and there’s some pretty nifty technology incorporated into that store. Case in point, the storefront window is a touch-screen kiosk that allows passersby to search Auction Direct’s inventory. The store also has work stations available to customers, so they can browse online and research potential vehicle purchases.

The mall store, which opened up in October 2009, has been well received by the public. “Its non-stop traffic,” said Miltsch. The showroom is large enough to hold a few cars, and if customers want to test drive a car, another Auction Direct store is just six miles away. The mall store marks the second store in Victor, N.Y., and the fourth store for Auction Direct. The other two are in North Carolina and Florida, with more to come in the near future. “We’ll probably wind up opening at least a couple more stores in the next 18 months. The long-term goal is to maybe have 10 stores altogether.”

Vol. 7, Issue 5

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