At Winner Ford in Cherry Hill, N.J., Digital Marketing Manager Andy Dasher is using a text-messaging platform to improve his store’s communications with prospects and existing customers. Photo: Matt Morris

At Winner Ford in Cherry Hill, N.J., Digital Marketing Manager Andy Dasher is using a text-messaging platform to improve his store’s communications with prospects and existing customers. Photo: Matt Morris

Last year, texting became the most popular method of communication for Americans younger than 50. In response, many dealers are now in the process of reviewing and updating their digital marketing processes to make sure texting is a more central part of their lead-generation model. At Winner Ford in Cherry Hill, N.J., Digital Marketing Manager Andy Dasher is leading the charge.

“We plan to make leads generated by text a big part of our model moving forward, with a focus on expanding lead generation from our own Web presence,” Dasher says. “Obviously, the world is moving quickly to text as the primary form of communication from a mobile phone. We want to do everything we can to facilitate compliant, one-to-one text communication with prospects and customers in our updated plans.”

After testing a number of solutions, Dasher quickly found that text inquiries represent more than their fair share of low-in-funnel, ready-to-buy prospects. “We settled on a platform that offers text chat, regular Web chat, keyword and short-code callouts — for nondigital marketing — and reputation management, all in one dashboard. It’s a ‘one-stop shop’ for inbound and outbound texting.”

The Secret Is Out

Texting’s effectiveness as a marketing tool is no longer a secret, and auto dealers aren’t alone in their efforts to make it a bigger part of their daily communication with customers.

Department store heavyweight Nordstrom, which prides itself on its customer-centric business philosophy, made headlines in May when the company’s directors announced the launch of its first two-way texting platform. “TextStyle” allows shoppers to contact the store, ask questions of a sales representative and, ultimately, buy merchandise via text. Jamie Nordstrom, president of stores, touted the texting service as “an important step forward in our continued efforts to develop ways to serve customers on their terms.”

Of course, increased texting has led to increased regulation. In June, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed that the definition of “autodialer” under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) be very broadly interpreted to include, as one commissioner noted, “each and every smartphone, tablet, [voiceover IP] phone, calling APP, texting APP — pretty much any phone that’s not a rotary dial phone will be [considered] an automatic telephone dialing system.”

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) responded by stating, in part, that the decision “is likely to expand the risks associated with sending text messages or making calls to cell phones without the proper written, express prior consent.”

Clearly, for both competitive and regulatory reasons, a robust, two-way texting solution has now passed the tipping point from “nice-to-have” to “must-have” technology.

Safety First

I often tell my dealer clients that, if they are not talking with customers on a fully functioning text-messaging platform, they might as well be locking their showroom doors on Saturday afternoons. And if they are allowing their sales pros to text with prospects and customers on their own private cell phones, I tell them they are being left out of those conversations and, worse yet, they could be putting themselves and their businesses at risk.

You see, under the terms of the TCPA, text-message marketing requires a formal opt-in notification with compliant language, a double opt-in if there is a digital link and an automatic cessation of all texting if the recipient types “stop” at any time. Ignoring those rules could cost you up to $1,500 — for each violation.

So with a clear need for a compliant solution, and a proliferation of vendors in the market, what should you look for in a two-way text-messaging platform?

Like any other form of communication, you want your text-messaging system to be easy to use for prospective and current customers as well as your employees. But it also must facilitate your store’s compliance with TCPA regulations. Remember, the onus of FCC compliance falls on the user, not the provider. Your vendor should have no trouble explaining and demonstrating the internal safeguards and archived permission documentation that will prove you are following the rules.

Most (but, surprisingly, not all) CRM systems have some texting software capability, and it should be written with FCC regs in mind. But the moment one of your salespeople texts a customer outside the confines of the CRM, all those safeguards go right out the window.

New Prospects

With a compliant system in place, it’s time to start texting with prospective customers. You want to make it easy for a new lead to reach you, and you will soon find that most car buyers prefer it. It’s less invasive and time-consuming than a series of phone calls, and for the salesperson, it represents an opportunity to capture the prospect’s name, cell phone number and authorization to continue the conversation. But as we discussed, once a prospect texts “stop,” they should automatically be removed from the system forever — or at least until they opt in again.

Here are a few features geared specifically toward new customers:

1. Digital links: Your texting platform should accommodate digital links from your desktop and mobile website. We have found that a bold “Text Us!” button graphic on your home page and each vehicle listing and detail page works best.

Remember, according to the TCPA, simply completing an online form does not mean a prospect has opted in. An automated follow-up message should be generated, and it should include language such as “Thank you for contacting ABC Motors. To confirm you would like to chat with us via text message, please respond with YES.”

Only after the prospect responds in the affirmative do you have authorization that can stand up to scrutiny. This double opt-in ensures that the person who filled out the form is the owner of the phone number, at least as far as the FCC is concerned.

2. Nondigital text-message promotion: While digital links on desktop and mobile sites are vital elements to attracting prospects via text, your texting platform should be able to integrate a text-based call to action on nondigital media as well. Many dealers still devote a substantial portion of their media budget to TV and radio, print advertising and direct mail, none of which can support a digital link. But you can easily include language such as “Questions? Text DEALERSHIP to 69696 to talk to us today!”

Many texting platforms use keywords combined with “short codes” (such as the example above) and “long codes” (standard 10-digit phone numbers) and can switch between the two for maximum flexibility. Some can even use your old landline number to connect with your texting platform.

Leverage your traditional ad spend by taking every opportunity to include a two-way text call to action, and assign a unique keyword to each medium. You can increase your text opportunities and create an additional rating metric to see which types of advertising are resonating with in-market shoppers.

3. Proprietary data: Remember a decade or so ago, when some online services offered to list your inventory for free if you just let them into your DMS to pull your vehicle data? We all know how that turned out. Once dealers realized their inventories were being used to generate leads that were later sold back to them (and their competitors), the practice ended quickly.

Well, the two-way texting segment has now matured to the point where some vendors are dusting off the same old trick. They are offering inbound link-based texting platforms that are ostensibly free but could incur a hidden cost. For example, one provider’s consumer-facing disclaimer states that they are providing the service and thus the prospect’s exchange with the dealer, as well as their phone number, are available to the vendor. A link to their privacy statement reveals that they are allowed to record their text conversation, match their phone number with other information and provide all that data to other companies or, if they’re texting with a new-car dealer, the manufacturer.

So, if you want to keep your valuable data to yourself, be very cautious of any free or “in the package” texting platform offerings out there. And you can be sure those platforms will not include most of the features discussed in this article.

Malouf Ford in North Brunswick, N.J., recently added an orange “Text Us” link to the top of its home page and vehicle listing pages, along with callouts asking visitors to use a keyword/short code to receive special offers.

Malouf Ford in North Brunswick, N.J., recently added an orange “Text Us” link to the top of its home page and vehicle listing pages, along with callouts asking visitors to use a keyword/short code to receive special offers.

Texting for Fixed Ops

Wouldn’t it be nice if your service customers didn’t have to fight through a switchboard to reach their service advisor? Texting gives them the opportunity to communicate one-on-one and a convenient way to share updates and alerts.

This is particularly helpful when your service team has a car torn down in the bay and they need the customer’s approval to move forward. Better yet, they can snap a photo and send that along with the request. Both parties will have documentation of the vehicle’s condition before the repair and, in some cases, you can reduce a process that used to take hours down to a few minutes.

While they are not yet quite as common as those designed exclusively for sales, some vendors are offering solutions geared toward the service side of your business, complete with photos, videos, and unique keywords for individual customers and service advisors. (The service advisor’s mobile phone number is routed through a cloud-based dashboard and never revealed). If I was a betting man, I’d say the next stage of text evolution is clearly going to be from the fixed operations end of the auto retail spectrum.

Meanwhile, text-messaging technology has officially entered the mainstream, but it still represents a competitive advantage for forward-thinking dealers.

“You would have to be asleep not to see that texting has already overtaken email, phone and even standard Web chat as the most popular form of communication for most people,” says Winner Ford’s Dasher. “We recognize that it also creates the best low-in-the-funnel lead source for our business, so we think it’s time we focused on specific technology to facilitate text with our prospects and customers.”

John F. Possumato is an attorney, the founder of Automotive Mobile Solutions and a nationally recognized mobile marketing expert. No part of this article is intended to be legal advice and should not be taken as such. [email protected]