Marketing for automotive dealerships in 2016 was a battle fought and won on customer experience. The digital marketing space is more crowded than ever from inside and outside the industry as everyone competes for consumer attention. Dealers aren't necessarily only competing against each other anymore, they are competing against other brand names in the digital marketing arena.

Additionally, new entrants in the industry are putting more pressure than ever on stealing the consumer experience from dealerships. Attempts such as Tesla's OEM stores selling direct to consumers, online transaction companies such as Amazon and other alternative sales models have proven nothing more than distractions during 2016, but demonstrate that the traditional dealer model continues to be under attack.

Winning dealer marketing strategies have to reach across all channels and mediums that affect their addressable market to own the experience. Although, the industry is swiftly moving toward websites, social and other digital strategies, dealerships should focus on protecting their addressable market and target consumers, even if those strategies include traditional media.

Dealers aren't necessarily only competing against each other anymore, they are competing against other brand names in the digital marketing arena.

Mobile is King

Mobile continued its unrelenting charge in 2016. DrivingSales Data collected from more than 2,000 dealer websites shows that in November 2016, 55% of traffic to dealer sites was from a mobile device. In November 2015 only 45% of traffic was from mobile devices.

With this shift dealers must place more focus on mobile and consider it the default platform for their website. This consideration further emphasizes a responsive mobile-first strategy for all communications and lead generation strategies.

Valuable Communication

Lead forms have typically been the preferred approach to interact with customers and gain contact information to further communication. Studies have proven that many people refuse to interact with forms because they fear what will happen when sharing their contact information (spam, unwanted calls).

To address the issue of consumer hesitancy to share contact information, dealers looked to other communication formats to interact with customers. Some of these strategies included website chat, social media messaging, texting, online transaction applications and digital videos. Consumers are looking for instant value and these mediums offered a more instantaneous and direct form of communication versus traditional web forms.

Social Media

The jury is still out as to how effective advertising will be on the different social media platforms. Of the major sites though, Facebook made the most innovations during the year to assist in social selling and even launched some specific updates directed to the automotive industry.

Facebook this year launched new advertising settings including multi-image positions and enhancements to their retargeting capabilities that opened up new possibilities for advertising on the site. However, the feature that had the most potential for automotive impact was the interactive immersive video ads that allowed people to view an entire vehicle interior within Facebook.

Other sites made minor improvements to allow for new advertising approaches. Twitter improved its advertising and targeting tools to allow for more ad-hoc abilities. Further, Instagram, after being acquired by Facebook, opened up new channels that allowed for closer ties between Facebook and Instagram advertising.

One clear use of social media that dealers have proven is the ability to leverage the networks for community outreach and communication. Social media strategies are increasing in importance due to the amount consumers rely on them to verify the reputation of a given dealership. However, many dealers still are not participating in sites like Twitter to monitor conversations and respond to concerns.

Review and Ratings Sites

Today, dominant sites like Yelp and Google Local are being met with an endless amount of review sites. Many of these new vendors either offer increased control or moderation of reviews.

Dealer customers are becoming savvier with reputation management and relying on reviews to help guide the brand, model and dealership they choose. The majority of third-party sites now offer ratings information at the model level and many offer dealer reviews as well.

With the increase in the frequency of reviews and the locations where reviews can be left, dealers have a more difficult responsibility in tracking and responding to reviews. Many dealers have turned to solution providers to help manage their reputation to ensure their reputation stays positive for potential customers for both service and vehicle sales.

Alternative Distribution Models

New companies competing on consumer experience and distribution models continually made significant noise in news and politics in 2016. These models included online buying and sales such as Carvana and Vroom as well as direct from OEM as from Tesla.

Although these models did not see significant traction from the general consumer, they have proven that there is an appetite for these alternative approaches. Adapting to this new competition will require dealers to consider offering more services and interaction online. Finding solutions to extend these services will foreseeably become the hotbed of dealership innovation.

2016 in the Rearview

2016 will probably be remembered as the Year of the Battle to Own Consumer Experience, whether on review site, on social or on mobile. For dealers the most important strategies will be to secure and dominate the consumer experience for their potential customers. Make the messages relevant and direct, and ensure noise is reduced. The big win will be that customer that not only buys a car off your lot, but refers you to others and follows you on social. Cheers to 2017.