At Pacifico Marple Ford Lincoln in Broomall, Pa., the Pacifico brothers and their partners are employing loyalty geofencing to retain more sales and service customers.  Photos:Kirk Hoffman

At Pacifico Marple Ford Lincoln in Broomall, Pa., the Pacifico brothers and their partners are employing loyalty geofencing to retain more sales and service customers. Photos:Kirk Hoffman

One of the things I like the most about digital marketing for automotive retailers — specifically, mobile-focused digital marketing — is that it is truly a great equalizer. It is no longer about how much money you spend but how intelligently you spend it.

No better example exists than loyalty geofencing, also known as proximity marketing. You are now able to track every prospect, walk-in, phone up, Web chat, email or text lead from the moment they make first contact, then hit them with a killer “Come back today!” offer if they drive onto a competitor’s lot. Your message will appear above each car buyer’s “lock” screen, like any other alert, where it can’t be ignored.

All of this is made possible by the advancing capabilities and clout of Apple Wallet and Google Wallet, one of which is on virtually every smartphone in America. All you need to communicate with them is a strategically placed beacon and a targeted message.

Think about the possibilities. You can reach customers by placing beacons at car shows, oil change shops or the highway that runs by your store, and they don’t even have to install an app to see your messages. Better yet, it’s incredibly cost-effective, and it’s not too late to be an early adopter.

With all that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the technology and how it works.

The Final Destination

Loyalty geofencing is a new technology based on an old rule: The last dealer shopped usually wins the sale. Remember when dealers gave out half gallons of ice cream to new prospects to make sure they stopped at their store last? Well, you can accomplish the same thing with loyalty geofencing, and you don’t even need a freezer.

Instead, you can send an offer for free ice cream (or a hot dog, or a slice of pizza) at any local shop to any prospect in the form of an Apple Wallet or Google Wallet pass. Once they accept it — even if they never cash it in — the connection is made. You can now reach them anywhere, anytime, or whenever they get within range of your beacon.

How? By getting their permission, of course, which they grant when they accept your offer. The authorization link can be introduced in many different formats. It can be in print, with a QR code link or SMS keyword/short code callout (e.g. “Text PIZZA to 69696 for free pizza”), or through a digital link to an online landing page.

So you offer the free pizza and the recipient clicks on the link, sends the text message or scans the QR code, thus authorizing the offer to “pass” into her Apple Wallet or Google Wallet. She doesn’t have to give her name, just authorization for the pass, and the process is finished. If she takes her phone to the vendor you partnered with, the one-time offer is processed and the pass is executed. But even if she never makes it to the pizza parlor, you have already obtained her permission to contact her.

Get the Word Out

Once a prospect or customer has accepted your offer — and as long as they have permissions for contact set to “On,” which is typically the default setting — you now have many ways to get your next above-the-lock-screen message to them. Remarkably, although your offer message appears in the same form as a text message notification, it is not technically an SMS message and thus is not bound by the FCC’s texting regulations.

There are three ways to use loyalty geofencing to retain your customers:

  • Send a general offer message to everyone who has accepted a pass in their wallet.
  • Send a targeted offer whenever a prospect steps into a specific geofenced area. You pick the distance, from a few feet to a few miles, from a given point on the map. So the initial offer can be for a piece of pizza, and if the prospect visits another dealership, your second offer can be for a discount on a vehicle if they buy today.
  • Send messages by beacons.

Traditional beacons are small devices, about the size of your hand, that cost about $35 apiece. They can send out any message offers you want, whenever you want, to a range of up to about 250 feet. The battery life is typically about two years.

New to the market are smaller beacons, about the size of a postage stamp. They only cost about $10, but their range is closer to 20 feet and the battery only lasts about a year. These are meant to be put on products or in specific store areas to broadcast information useful to those in the immediate vicinity.

With your beacons in place, it’s time to get your message out. Here’s how it works with different types of customers:

New leads: You work hard and spend a lot of money to get a new prospect to walk in, call, chat, text, email or even just visit your website. Some dealers will add an incentive, right at the start, to promote contests or gifts for those who take a test drive. So why not use Apple Wallet and Google Wallet to offer every visitor a free “no brainer” gift just for contacting you? They don’t even have to reveal their name to be added to your database. You can track and reach out to serial numbers.

Sold customers: Wallet passes are also useful for building loyalty programs. You can distribute service specials and coupons without the cost of postage or the ineffectiveness of email. Better yet, you can geofence your top 10 service competitors and have your service special reminder pop up, above the lock screen, whenever your customers visit them.

Pacifico Marple’s dealer principal, Michael Pacifico (seated), reviews the results of the dealership’s proximity marketing campaign with General Sales Manager Jeremy Fisher.

Pacifico Marple’s dealer principal, Michael Pacifico (seated), reviews the results of the dealership’s proximity marketing campaign with General Sales Manager Jeremy Fisher. 

Service customers: Use a strategically placed beacon to broadcast a highly valued loyalty service discount or special that’s good only that day — remember, you can set an expiration date for any of these offers, at any time, be it in the next hour, day, week, month or year. You will reach literally every customer who has accepted one of your offers in the past and is driving by or in the area. This would not have been possible just a short time ago, when loyalty geofence and beacon technology required every prospect to download a customized app and allow location notification.

Showroom visitors: Of course, using beacons in and around the dealership can be an effective sales and service tool. Larger beacons can be used for simple tasks such as sending a special greeting to every customer when they pull in the lot or sending general information on specials going on that day. Smaller beacons can be placed in every vehicle in the showroom to kick out messages to customers in their orbits.

Event attendees: Beacons are portable, so you can broadcast your private message or offer to your customers who are at a stadium, in a mall or at a car show. When you really think about it, the possibilities are endless. Without the expense of erecting a booth or taking an ad out in the local magazine, you can send out a specialized show vehicle offer to all of your customers in a given crowd, without any expense. Is your banner up at the local high school football field? Reinforce it with a beacon and a smartphone notification. Is your shop low on appointments? Park a vehicle at a busy mall parking lot or shopping center close by with a beacon inside, sending out your service-special message to everyone within a few hundred feet.

The Beacons Are Coming, the Beacons Are Coming!

While the integration of beacons with Apple Wallet and Google Wallet is a relatively new innovation, the message is spreading fast, particularly in our industry. In the first half of 2015, for example, Ford Motor Co. announced a pilot program that uses beacons to broadcast information to customers and prospects who walk into participating dealerships.

As described in an industry publication interview back in June, Ford’s experts suggested that the beacons could be positioned inside vehicles, for instance, to broadcast information on specific features or special rebates or discount packages. Initially, they added, the campaign would require the use of a third-party app to operate, so a customer or prospect would have to have that app installed on their phone and have already “opted in” to proximity-based messages in order to receive Ford’s beacon message.

Another app-based, beacon-enabling product was recently introduced by AutoMotion, a popular customized app vendor. Once a prospect or customer downloads their dealer app and allows for push notifications, the dealer can send customized messages through beacons or when the app holder enters geotargeted, geofenced ­locations.

My own company has invested in loyalty geofencing technology geared specifically toward auto dealers, and larger digital marketing providers are getting into the beacon game as well. Last year, Verve Mobile acquired Fosbury Inc., an innovator in beacon and mobile wallet technology.

With beacon-triggering messaging alone expected to drive $44.4 billion in U.S. in-store sales next year, expect more and more marketers and dealers to jump on the beacon bandwagon. Considering the marketing power and clout of Apple Wallet and Google Wallet technology, it’s clear this is a “when,” rather than an “if,” situation. Loyalty geofencing will have a major effect on how new vehicles, used vehicles and service are sold.

These technologies present an exciting opportunity for those who get in the game early and master the new strategy and tactics before their competitors can catch up. As Michael Pacifico, dealer principal at Pacifico Marple Ford in Broomall, Pa., puts it, “As this loyalty geofencing technology rapidly advances, it’s best we start using it now to reap some of the early benefits, before it becomes a ‘must-have’ tactic.”

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]