Car Dealers: Stop Overthinking Your Website! It’s All About Conversion!

(This is an update of a 2011 article I wrote for Digital Dealer Magazine. For some reason, my byline is absent in the online version of that post.)

As I’ve said (and written) for a decade, if you’re a for-profit business, your website has only two goals:

  1. Attract Visitors.
  2. Convert those Visitors into Customers.

Attract. Convert. Repeat.

That’s it.

In the August 2011 print edition of Digital Dealer Magazine, I introduced the concept of “Digital Marketing Independence” and asked the question “can dealers do it all themselves?” The short answer, for those who did not read that piece, is simply “no,” dealers cannot and should not try to manage the complexities of marketing on the World Wide Web or even try to generate all of their Internet sales leads themselves. The space is too wide and the art of attracting in-market consumers is too complex. visitors to buyers

(It’s interesting that AutoNation recently tried to go it alone only to capitulate when they realized that even the largest group in America could not possibly capture the majority of the in-market prospects without help.)

While I explained in the article how truly successful dealers were leveraging third parties to grow their sales and revenue, I intentionally left the must-do first-party activities out of the discussion. My goal was to make sure that dealers cast the widest net possible when creating and executing a digital marketing plan. First-party leads – those leads dealers generate from their own activities and websites – are the number one weapon in any dealer’s online arsenal, but they are by no means the only weapon. It’s important that dealers understand this concept before reading on, otherwise, it is likely they will only work at generating first-party leads (because the results for these activities can be remarkable).

First-party leads: Your best results

I should caution you that generating first-party leads can become so addicting that you might eventually utter something nonsensical like “I’m only focusing on first-party leads, because that’s where I get the best results.” (I’ve heard this more than a dozen times from otherwise well-meaning Internet managers.) The thought that dealers need not worry about other lead types (because first-party leads deliver such great results) is akin to a dealer principal saying “We’re only going to be open on Saturdays, because that’s when we sell the most cars.”

That exercise would be asinine, of course, as would the practice of just working first-party leads. That said; let’s at least make sure you’re doing everything you can to generate the maximum number of first-party leads possible before casting the wide net I wrote about last month.

First-party leads and lead-generating activities run the gamut from email marketing to search engine optimization to social media; though in the interest time and space, I’ll just focus on the activities dealers can take to generate more first-party leads from the existing traffic on their websites. (For most dealers, this represents the greatest opportunity and the lowest hanging fruit. Plus, all of the following tips and products are mind-numbingly simple to implement and/or relatively inexpensive.)

Conversion design – The ‘purpose’ of your website

I reiterated earlier that your website has just two goals: 1) To attract visitors and 2) To compel those visitors to become buyers. The latter goal is called gaining a conversion, and the discipline for properly designing your site to maximize conversions is called (amazingly enough) “conversion design.” For dealers, this means generating a phone call, an email lead or (especially in 2016 & beyond) compelling a consumer to drop what they’re doing and drive right over to your dealership with their checkbook in hand.

The guiding principle of great conversion design is simple: You need to tell the online visitor what you want them to do on your website. That means, if it’s leads you want, then you have to demonstrate this with an abundance of calls-to-action with conversion opportunities on every page of your site. The inclusion of these calls-to-action is easy, and they can be presented via a number of ways, though I will focus on four very basic elements: menu items, buttons, forms and parasites.

(Be sure to watch my free online video training: Convert Website Visitors into Customers for a deep dive into everything you should be doing on your website to sell more cars today!)

Website Menu Items

Your website’s navigation menu is perhaps one of the most overlooked areas when your goal is to drive leads. This is a pity, of course, because if yours is an average car dealer website, then 95% or more of homepage clicks take place in the menu. It is critical, therefore, to have strong conversion calls-to-action in prominent places in your navigation menu.

Links like: “Value Your Trade,” “Get Your ePrice,” “Check Payments,” “Schedule Service,” “Order Parts,” “Schedule a Test Drive” and “Apply Online” are great ways to direct consumers to pages on your website containing lead forms. These links should be at or near the top of the appropriate menu items as they are the most important links on your site (if your goal is to drive leads, of course). Links to research items, blogs and staff pages are nice, but these often take you further away from your goal of gaining a conversion. I always recommend moving these links near then end of your website’s navigation bar and holding the items under the new cars and used cars navigation menus to inventory, specials and conversion links.

Conversion Buttons

Online consumers follow a clear pattern when they view virtually any page on the Internet. If yours is a typical dealer website, then visitors’ eyes dart across specific parts of your web page in what is often called the classic F-pattern. This means they generally view what’s along the top, the left margin and left middle of your website; but little else. Clearly, if your goal is to generate leads, it is critical that you place any buttons that contain calls-to-action in this F-pattern.

When I do see dealers with buttons in this area, I most often find items like “New Inventory,” “Used Inventory” and “Specials.” This is a tremendous waste of important real estate (unless those pages have a terrific record of conversion). Additionally, consumers who come to your site looking for inventory will find it without the need to give up great real estate to a button proclaiming “New Inventory.” Therefore, buttons above the fold on the left side of your website should be reserved for conversion items like those I wrote about in the menu items paragraphs above.

Website Lead Forms

Amazingly, some website providers (and even some automotive classified websites) who claim to be experts at driving leads for their dealers fail to give consumers the most obvious way to exchange their contact information for dealer information: the ePrice Form. Any page that displays a piece of inventory (this includes your specials pages) should also prominently display a Quick Quote or ePrice Form, because there is no better time to entice a consumer to give up their contact info than when they are excited about a unit you have for sale.

Deployed prominently throughout your website, the ePrice Form will be your top producing form. This assumes, of course, that it is always placed on the left side of the page and above the fold. For years we’ve seen studies that show consumers do more than 80% of their web surfing above the fold and only 20 % below it. (This means if you place anything important to you below the visible area of the screen, it will be missed more than 80% of the time.)

The final consideration for all lead forms on your website is the verbiage you employ for the call-to-action. While the increasingly popular “Get Your ePrice” seems to be doing the best job of driving leads for most dealers today, I still see plenty of dealers with the fairly lame “Contact Dealer” on the top of the forms on their vehicle details pages. It’s clear these dealers don’t understand that most consumers are shopping online because they don’t want to contact dealers. Only after they’ve found the car of their dreams at the very best price will they consider contacting a dealer – that is, unless dealers give them a great call-to-action like “Verify Availability,” “Schedule a Test Drive” or “Get Your ePrice.”

It’s important, then, to review your website as if you were a consumer and ask yourself “Is this call-to-action strong enough to entice me to divulge my contact information?”

(Updated for 2016: When your inventory is priced-to-market, you’ll want to avoid buttons that encourage price negotiations (like Get ePrice or Quick Quote) and opt instead for those buttons that generate interest without destroying your remaining gross (like Check Availability or Lock-In Today’s Price).

Parasites: The lead-sucking leeches on your website

Back when Reynolds & Reynolds was a publicly traded company and I was working for the Web Solutions group, we repurposed the word “parasite” to describe anything a third-party added to one of our clients’ websites.

Because we saw these parasites as uninvited guests with great revenue potential, our goal at the time was to duplicate and remove them. For the most part, we were unsuccessful, because we soon learned we were really good at designing and building websites, but our team lacked the bandwidth to keep up with the technology, regulations, data and everything else required to provide some of the best parasites ever created. (Parasite providers are just simply better at this because, for the most part, this is their only job.)

Once I moved to the client side at the Asbury Automotive Group, I realized that great parasites were a dealer’s best friend. These once-hated nuisances were now lead-generating machines that were delivering a combined cost-per-sale well under $75. (Today, many parasites deliver a cos-per-sale below $30.)

Some of the parasites we used then and some of the ones I highly recommend to dealers today are among the most obvious like pop-up coupons, live chat, lead-generating widgets, automated specials and trade appraisals. Dealers who do not employ these five very basic parasites are at a distinct competitive disadvantage to those dealers who do use them.

Beware the website design “experts”

I once had a client who showed me the “professional” review an SEO company had completed for his website. This SEO company told my client that their website was “too busy” and that they should remove many of the lead-generating items (including parasites) so that consumers could have a “better user experience.” Had this dealer not sought a second opinion, he would have literally traded half his monthly website leads in order to create this “better user experience.”

What the website design “experts” (like this SEO company) don’t understand about car dealer websites is that the primary goal is a conversion, not user experience. Additionally, unless you’ve worked in automotive retail, it’s hard to understand how important it is for dealers to maintain control in the showroom throughout the sales process; and that this extends to the virtual showroom, as well. When a dealer allows consumers to freely surf the dealer’s website without also directing these visitors to what is important to the dealer, they run the risk of being eliminated by the consumer before they ever get a chance to earn their business. Without a conversion, dealers are just lucky if they happen to sell a car to a website visitor.

(Studies show about 3 out of every 5 buyers will make no contact with you before showing up to buy a car. This means, it’s critical that your website properly balance their needs against the 2 out of 5 who will call or submit a lead. We discuss this in detail during our free Website Conversion Training Video.)

Beware your OEM, too

Generally speaking, the consumer who visits a dealer’s website is (by the very fact that the dealer is engaged in the retail transaction stage of the purchase funnel) lower in the purchase funnel compared to visitors to virtually any other automotive-related site – including your OEM’s site. Over the years, many OEMs have required or continue to require that dealers use OEM-approved website designs. For most dealers, this usually means a reduction in conversions.

This is not because the OEMs want dealers to generate fewer leads, it’s because the goals of an OEM website (branding and information) do not translate perfectly to the needs of a dealership website (attraction and conversion). Additionally, too many OEMs are overly concerned with micromanaging all of the design elements and verbiage a dealership might use to convey simple things like a special price.

For example, some OEMs (believe it or not) won’t let dealers use words like “clearance” or “closeout” to describe their clearance or closeout vehicles. Moreover, the overall designs of most OEM-mandated dealer sites are still not geared for conversion, but brand experience and OEM continuity. Unfortunately, this puts some dealers (those who rely solely on an OEM-mandated website) at a competitive disadvantage in their market.

Attract and convert

The concept of attracting and converting visitors is so critical to a dealer’s online success that it should guide every decision they make with respect to their dealership website. Understanding this, dealers can and should follow three simple rules for driving the maximum number of first-party leads from their sites:

  1. Remember your goals when designing or making any changes to your website, especially when you’re making those changes at the direction of a website design “expert” or your OEM. Don’t get too caught up with “user experience,” unless you’re seeing a decrease in lead counts.
  2. The menu items, buttons, forms and parasites you employ all have the same goal: Drive incremental conversion. Use them correctly.
  3. Just as dealers should cast a wide net with third-party providers, casting a wide net with parasites (i.e., including them all) is critical (and often the most cost-effective marketing you will employ).

If you’re like most dealers, you’ll close between 20 and 25 percent of the first-party leads you generate. Putting it another way, you can expect to sell one car for four to five leads generated from your website and parasites. Knowing this, I can’t imagine a better exercise for you or your team than to review your website, and find and employ each and every conversion design element you can. Just be careful you don’t stop there (the truly successful dealers do cast a very wide net).

Good selling!