Creating Your Own SF Opportunities Online

It’s no secret; dealer-generated leads close better than purchased, third-party leads. Not only can third-party leads get expensive, but some in the industry are saying third-party leads aren’t what they used to be. “Third-party leads have definitely slumped off, and that’s mainly because if you look at the industry, dealers are concentrating more on their own Web sites and doing a better job,” said Alex Snyder, e-commerce director of Checkered Flag Motor Car Corp. in Virginia Beach, Va. He believes consumers are noticing the change, “trusting the dealer Web sites more,” and submitting leads on more dealer sites compared to past years.

However, actually generating your own leads – also known as first-party leads – isn’t easy. The traffic is out there (over 72 percent of the U.S. population is online). Many dealers have jumped in headfirst and are successfully using the Internet to generate special finance leads. Are you harnessing the power of the Internet to generate first-party leads? Some of the ways you can generate special finance leads online are through:

• Your main dealership Web site
• A separate, branded Web site
• A separate, blind Web site

A Web site, whether blind or branded, is simply a portal that allows consumers to submit leads. To create first-party leads, dealers must push consumers to their Web site(s) and have effective lead submission points available on the site that entice customers to submit information.

Of course, various dealers take different approaches. Some dealers have one main dealership site and generate ample SF leads, while others have two or three sites.

One-Site Approach
Hare Chevrolet of Noblesville, Ind., has one main Web site,, and in 2008, the dealership averaged over 64 special finance Internet sales per month. The site has a simple, unobtrusive “Get Pre-Approved in Seconds” banner that appears twice on its home page—once “above the fold” and again at the very bottom of the page. Hare Auto Vice President Courtney Cole said some version of the “Get Pre-Approved in Seconds” banner has been on their home page for years. It’s also available on other pages on the site, like the new and pre-owned inventory pages.

While that simple banner generates many of the dealership’s first-party SF Internet leads, there are some other lead submission points on that generate a substantial amount of SF leads and aren’t necessarily SF-focused. For example, the home page has a “Vehicles Under $10k” link, which produces quite a few leads. Cole said those vehicle listings generally draw attention from two types of people—“either perfect credit customers that want to buy something for their kids or special finance customers that think they need to have a cheap vehicle.”

She said the best conversion rates come from chat. The Hare Chevy site has a drop-down instant message feature, and on the store’s page, a chat feature is available. “Chat is huge. I love chat,” stated Cole. Even better, she said the cost to offer it is low. The store engages in about 15 chats a day from people across the credit spectrum.

The site has several other lead submission points – like two different credit applications and several different points on each vehicle listing – to capture customer information, but new to the Hare site is a “Credit Repair” section. Cole works with a third-party company to offer credit repair services to customers who cannot obtain financing. She said the company does a “nice job” of working with customers to get their scores up, so they can come back in a couple of months and be able to get a loan. She is considering making that section of the site more visible. 

In addition to having several lead submission points, she believes frequently changing the Web site is important to keep customers returning to the site and generating leads. “I think we should change our Web sites daily [or at least weekly].” One of the more popular sections of the site is Hare Chevrolet’s weekly specials, which are presented on the home page two ways—scrolling listings and in a video. Cole tries to keep the weekly specials videos, which are hosted on YouTube, around 30 seconds long. For additional exposure, she posts them on the dealership’s Facebook page.

As for separate SF Web sites, Hare Chevrolet does not use them. They once tried a blind site, but did not have a good experience. She’s considered setting up a separate, branded site; it’s just a matter of getting it done and adapting to the change. She’s yet to pull the trigger on that project.

Two-Site Approach
While Hare generates enough first-party traffic with one Web site, several other dealers maintain two or three Web sites. Both Suzuki of Wichita in Wichita, Kan., and Harr Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Worcester, Mass., have a main dealership site and a blind special finance site.

For about two years, Harr CJD has had two sites— and Mike Gross, general manager, said the dealership, located in Worcester, Mass., is in a big subprime market, and although they get a significant number of walk-ins that are SF, the dealership used to purchase a large amount of third-party SF leads. “They get costly, so we just figured we could come up with a way to generate leads ourselves.” The MassEZCredit site generates between 50 and 75 SF leads a month, and those leads account for 35 to 40 percent of the store’s business.

Gross worked with a third-party company, Potratz Advertising Agency, to build and optimize the site so it appears in the organic search results. “When people in the Worcester area are searching for ‘bad auto loan’ or ‘bad credit’ in the Worcester market, it’s coming up ranked pretty high,” he said. The blind site also appears atop the paid search results, meaning the company utilizes search engine marketing (SEM) in addition to search engine optimization (SEO) to make sure the site tops the list of results.

While, Suzuki of Wichita’s main Web site, conveys an easy financing message (not to be confused with an SF message), management opted for the blind-site route. Unlike Hare Chevrolet, which built a strong reputation for being able to help customers with less-than-perfect credit, when Suzuki of Wichita came under new ownership in 2007, it was relatively unknown in its marketplace.

For a while, the store focused on special finance, but in early 2008, Dealer Scott Pitman decided to actively market to prime credit customers and focus on building a brand for the store. Tom White, “super genius and mastermind of possibilities” at Suzuki of Wichita, said, “Our thinking was, anything that had the Suzuki of Wichita brand, we didn’t want to taint the brand with a [bad credit message]. We wanted to appeal to the retail buyer … So anything that was branded Suzuki of Wichita, the only thing we mentioned were low rates, low payments [and] discount pricing.” 

However, some of the people at the store had a very strong background in special finance, so management wasn’t about to let that market go unattended. To generate SF leads, Suzuki of Wichita created The home page reads, “Even if you have bad credit, auto loans of all types are available!” While it makes one mention of Suzuki of Wichita in an educational article, the site in no way seems connected to the dealership. When Suzuki of Wichita employees follow up on the blind site leads, White said many of the customers respond with something to the effect of, “I wanted to buy a car from you, but I didn’t think you helped people that had challenged credit.”

Driving traffic to a blind site is one hurdle White had to clear. In addition to radio spots for, he focuses on SEO. He said, “I don’t have [a large] amount of money to spend on pay-per-click campaigns, so I have to be able to generate leads organically.” To rank well organically, he wrote several educational articles, posted customer testimonials and compiled glossaries for the site. Compared to many blind sites with only a few pages, Suzuki of Wichita’s includes quite a bit of content. On average, Suzuki of Wichita receives about 500 SF leads a month from both of their sites.

While a significant percentage of the store’s sales are still SF, the rebranding of the store was a success. White said the makeup of sales has reversed. “We went from 30-percent prime/70-percent subprime to 70-percent prime/30-percent subprime.” And the timing couldn’t have been better, as they began rebranding in early 2008. “We were just very, very lucky or just blessed … because we got into the prime business before subprime really started declining. We still do a lot of subprime, but we’ve lost so many lenders in this market, as everybody else around the country has.” He said if the dealership hadn’t switched, it would be selling 60 to 70 units a month, but since they rebranded, they’re selling double that.

White said, “The blind route has worked for us to generate leads. I don’t know that it works for everybody, and you can’t just flip a switch and make it work.”

Three-Site Approach
Metro Ford of Schenectady, N.Y., took generating first-party leads one step further and has three separate Web sites—a main site; a separate, branded SF site; and a separate, blind SF site., the main site, was launched in early 2009 as the store’s new site. The store’s blind site,, was also new to the dealership’s arsenal in early ‘09.

While it’s still too early to tell how successful the blind site will be for Metro Ford, the dealership has had the branded SF site ( for years. As expected, it generates the majority of the dealership’s first-party SF leads. While effective, the branded SF site is very simple. Aside from the home page and contact page, it features a credit application, a loan calculator and FAQs.

Advertising the URL of the branded SF site certainly helps drive traffic. In addition to SEM and SEO for the site, David Carach, general sales manager of Metro Ford, said, “We [advertise the URL] in all of our publications and all of our ads. We’re in a lot of little used-car publications locally.” 

More recently, Metro Ford hit the social networking scene via Facebook and Twitter. Carach said, “Just scratching the surface, I know how big that’s become.” The store is also driving SF traffic through e-mail campaigns, instead of direct mailers, because they’re cheaper.

The dealership, which also includes a BHPH operation, sells between 30 and 40 SF units a month, which equates to about one-third of the store’s total sales. Carach attributed about half of the SF sales to walk-in traffic because – like Harr CJD – Metro Ford is in a heavy SF area. He said, “We can tag maybe 50 or 60 percent of our [ups] as special finance customers.”

Other Tips
For dealers who want to generate SF leads through their main Web site instead of creating a new site dedicated to SF, landing pages allow dealers to get more out of SEM. A landing page is an offshoot of the main site and may have a URL like

Snyder of Checkered Flag said using landing pages in conjunction with SEM “makes you a lot more relevant.” For example, if your SF message is embedded on your main site, but is not displayed on the home page, paying for your home page to rank in searches related to bad credit may not be the best use of your money. While a Googler may click on your paid search link, if the person doesn’t see a “we help people with bad credit” message on your home page, he or she may not delve any further into your site to see your SF page.

However, if that same paid listing for searches related to bad credit is linked directly to a landing page that prominently displays a “we help people with bad credit” message, that same Googler is directed to a page that is relevant to what he or she is looking for. In turn, that site visitor is more likely to turn into a lead.

Snyder said, “If you’re going to get very targeted with keywords, the landing pages have to be there.” He added that many people who search for very specific terms or phrases and land on a page unrelated to their search terms will leave the site as quickly as they arrived because the link didn’t take them “directly to what they wanted.”

On any type of site, blogging can aid SEO efforts. A blog, when done well, is “search engine candy,” as Snyder calls it. Why? Because it’s “revolving content” that constantly changes. He elaborated, “If you’ve got a lot of changing things on your Web site, a search engine will pick that up and start going through your site a lot more often, which means you can get your message out there a lot faster. It also will start picking you up as a little more relevant, so they start feeding a lot more of your Web pages to different search results.”

Before Checkered included a blog, he said, “Google was going through our site and looking at things about every other day.” Since he added the blog, it goes through the site three to five times a day. Snyder said he sometimes sees new blog content on Google within an hour of posting it on Between him and a coworker, the blog is updated once a day, sometimes more.

Suzuki of Wichita also has a blog, and White said, “I don’t know that it generates more leads for us, but I think it enhances our closing percentage because it just makes us [seem] more legitimate and people want to buy a car from us.”

Special Finance Insider Vol. 3, Issue 3