Auto dealers often look for outside help when trying to design your online sales and marketing strategy. You spend precious time and money attending classes, conferences and seminars, hiring consultants and looking for the latest and greatest technology.

Keeping up to date is always a great idea, but the secret formula might be easier to create than you think. The best way to develop the right online strategy is to replicate your offline strategy.

The tried-and-true methods you used to attract, convert and retain customers in the good old days can translate very well to your online strategy. You’ll find that these homegrown strategies are easier to implement, adopt and customize for your dealership. Let’s take a look at four ways your offline strategy can complement your online strategy.

1. Engage With Your Customer in a Meaningful Way.

The first thing you do when you see customers walk into your physical location is send a salesperson to greet them. Similarly, most dealerships have live chat to “greet” customers who visit their website. We have found that this simple feature can raise conversion rates by as much as 50%.

However, many live chats end up driving customers away. They make them wait too long, ask for their contact information as soon as they click on the “Chat” button and respond with a canned prompt. Make sure to set up a live chat as you would train your floor sales staff by following these rules:

  • Don’t be annoying! There are no hard and fast rules, but you probably don’t want to ask a customer to chat more than four times during one visit.
  • Give them a reason to talk to you. Having a button that lets customers “Get an Eprice!” can help break the ice and give you a good reason to ask for the customer’s contact information.
  • Make sure your chat specialist is aligned with your offline sales strategy. If your chat promises a no-haggle price, make sure to give your customer a no-haggle price when they come into the dealership.

2. Make the Appropriate Call to Action.

The car-buying process is a long journey. Nearly 75% of customers now take more than a month to buy a car. Half take three months or longer. Creating the right call-to-action based on the type of customer can help move them to the next stage of the sales process.

Most folks under a certain age are far less likely to use their mobile phone to make or receive a phone call — particularly when talking to an auto dealer. Embrace this change by adding friendly “Text Us” links to your website. Include special callouts on your vehicle listing and vehicle detail pages and add invitations to text to all your nondigital media (e.g. “Text DEALER to 69696”).

It’s been recognized that, outside of an actual dealership “walk-in,” a text-driven lead represents the lowest shopper in the “sales funnel.” Text leads are five times more likely to buy a vehicle than a live chat lead; however, texting requires its own form of etiquette. In addition to the recommended live chat steps above — which apply to text chat leads — make sure that the first thing your administrator responds with is not an invitation to call this prospect.

Trying to convert a texting prospect too quickly, without proper dialogue and interaction, is akin to trying to force a showroom prospect into a car without completing the proper vehicle needs analysis. It’s counterproductive and, more often than not, will lower your odds of closing the deal.

3. Find the Right Car for Your Customer.

According to a McKinsey study on the automotive industry, more than 80% of car buyers wound up in a different brand than they originally intended to purchase. Many dealerships have great sales consultants who are able to getting “conquests” by asking the right questions and recommending vehicles that each customer actually wants to buy.

So why is it so rare to see a proper recommendation engine on dealer websites?

Amazon generates about $90 billion in sales every year, and their analysts attribute about 20% of its sales to their recommendation engine. That’s $18 billion in additional revenue. With a well-placed and functioning recommendation engine, in our experience, you can increase your VDP views up to 33%.

4. Get the Demo.

People buy cars when they feel an emotional connection. Your showroom teams does a great job getting the customers to feel the leather and go for a test drive. It is physically impossible to offer a test drive in an online environment, but high-quality, appealing photos can help people develop an emotional connection to the car. Many of the dealers we work with have doubled or tripled their conversion rates from completed lead forms simply by improving the quality of the photos and videos on their vehicle detail page displays.

Try it yourself. Commit to listing every vehicle with actual photos — and lots of them — then follow these tips to make sure they look good:

  • Fix your environment. The best option for fixing the environment is to have a dedicated space for photographing vehicles. You don’t have to have a studio. You can control the environment by finding a consistent place to take the pictures and doing so at the same time every day.
  • Train your photographers. Very few dealerships hire professional photographers, and considering the quality of digital cameras available today, you probably don’t have to. Create a photography manual that describes what pictures to take and how to take them.
  • Offer an interactive experience. Great photos on a bad viewer create a subpar user experience. Make sure to get image viewers on your website that have full-screen and zoom capabilities. Also, implementing 360-degree players that allow customer to interact with the images can help forge that elusive emotional bond faster than static images.

You operate neither a brick-and-mortar dealership nor a so-called “Internet dealership.” You are an auto dealer, and in today’s market, that means you pay attention to both aspects of your operation. Your offline strategy affects your online strategy, and vice versa. So let’s get started.

Daniel J. Kim is the founder and CEO of Sparki Labs and John F. Possumato is an attorney, the founder of Automotive Mobile Solutions and a nationally recognized mobile marketing expert. [email protected] [email protected]