RBM North’s Challenge:
How’s this for bone chilling? You’re a brand-new Mercedes dealership, whose gorgeous brick-and-mortar doors open the exact month the financial markets collapse (Oct. 2007), the long recession digs in, and auto sales begin their dizzying 30%-plus declines. That’s the story of RBM North of Alpharetta, GA, the newest store of a family-owned Mercedes dealership group that has been operating in Atlanta for 45 years. Their story began exactly as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression dug its heels in, and their grand-opening balloons were set against the backdrop of bank bailouts and a bursting housing bubble.
And not only was RBM North by far the youngest Mercedes dealership in a metro market with four well-established Mercedes players, it was a ‘destination’ store situated in a near-rural exurb on the rim of ever-expanding Atlanta - with limited, natural physical traffic and visibility. While their location touched on affluent zip codes, Internet Manager, Bethany Johnson, likes to joke: “many of our ‘drive-bys’ are cows.”
A nightmare? It didn’t turn out that way. In fact, RBM North has been extraordinarily successful, and has now staked out 10% more market share than any of their far more established, larger regional competitors. The key to their success: while most dealerships have slowly migrated to digital strategies, under the leadership of GM Randy Powell, RBM North embraced a nearly-100% digital marketing plan from ‘hello.’ Specifically, Powell knew that given the overwhelming consumer realities, his remote destination location, and the fact that they were an entirely unknown entity in a brutally competitive market, he had to focus intensely and cost-efficiently on being ‘found’ online. And the core pillars of their ‘online visibility’ campaign, while they have evolved significantly, have always been to establish: 1) powerful, first-page search engine visibility 2) rich, robust used inventory listings/reach across the Web 3) Adding a new focus on Reputation Management/positive review site visibility in early 2009.
While RBM North’s situation may seem unique, their case study shines a wider light on what an integrated, and near-100% focus on SEO and Reputation Management can accomplish for a dealership. As Powell put it, “Being an unknown entity was a huge challenge, but in many ways it proved an advantage: we were totally unencumbered by old ways of thinking, legacy marketing strategies and processes. We flew out of the gate with an 85%-digital-dedicated plan, attacking first our search and inventory presence, and then the review sites. And we’re pulling exponentially more customers not only from the Atlanta region - but across the South, and even the nation, every month.”
This case study touches on the dealership’s early strategies, but has a special focus on the results of their evolved SEO, review site and inventory campaigns, tracked from Feb. ’09 through Jul. 2010.
Forging A New ‘Triple-Pillar’ Strategy:
RBM North’s GM, Randy Powell, has 34 years experience in the car business, and currently serves on MBUSA’s Regional Dealer Advisory Board. Unlike many GMs, Randy comes from the Fixed Ops side, moving from service technician, to Service Director, into Operations Management and heading up the parent store’s BDC Department, before ultimately being named GM at RBM North.
Powell explains that his decision to forge a new ‘triple-pillar’ strategy, making organic search; a rich, visual inventory presence; and the review sites the bedrock of his marketing plan, came not so much from his expertise as ‘a car guy,’ but from being a regular consumer and keenly observing what the vast majority of regular consumers actually did – and sought - when they were buying anything. For Powell, the rise of the Internet changed everything, ushering in a new era where the person who could ask the best questions, query the best, was suddenly the most informed. Powell emphasizes that each of these three ‘backbones’ must be in place: “Putting up a million cars but having a bad online customer service reputation, or having a great reputation and only a handful of vehicle listings, doesn’t work. It all has to be integrated, and search engines are the portal.”
Bethany Johnson, Internet Manager at RBM North further notes that, with so much endless buzz around the next, newest technology solutions, it’s easier than ever for dealers to get distracted before they have the fundamentals of a high-ROI strategy in place.
“Our dealership is always evolving: there’s room for online chat, we have a Facebook and Twitter presence, and we’re really preparing for mobile, and location-based inventory search to be big,” said Johnson. “But with so many flavor-of-the month industry discussions, SEO can seem ‘so 2008,’ even Reputation Management so ‘last month,’ and getting your inventory strategy right, downright passé. But getting the core strategies – the ones that have the very highest impact on the very largest number of consumers – right, is key.”
I) The Quest for First-Page Search Placement: From PPC, to SEO, to Innovative SEO
Back in late 2007 Randy Powell had a brand new URL that desperately needed to be ‘found’ (and fast), but, as he put it, “we were, by nature, appearing on the 400th page at Google.” He hired a company to do SEO to boost his organic placement, but initially “bought” his way onto the first page by spending on PPC. “I had to let the world know we were here, and I spent on PPC and direct mail,” said Powell. “I knew I was buying short-term visibility, when I wanted the sustained visibility only really good SEO could provide.”
Powell never wavered in his belief that SEO should form the backbone of his digital business. Determined to make it work, he selected eXtéresAUTO in early ‘09, to try a more innovative, customized campaign that cast a much wider ‘optimization’ net across ten cities around Atlanta. Given the state of new vehicle sales, the new plan also heavily optimized new search profit centers like used and service, reaching far out-of-state for pre-owned inventory and wholesale parts.
New SEO Results:
Bethany Johnson reports that by March ‘09, this newly targeted and expanded SEO campaign had made a “huge, dramatic difference for new and used sales, service and parts. We have since dominated the first-pages across our metro region for these searches, and we’ve seen a huge kick in our out-of state wholesale parts and pre-owned sales business.” And Powell notes that it’s allowed him to cut/refine his PPC spend by at least 50% across the last year-plus, saving him a lot of money. That ‘spend refinement’ is reflected in the dramatic decline in the dealership’s cost-per-click: falling from $38 in early ‘08, to $4 in early 2010.
RBM North’s first-page placement rates have more than doubled: from 32% in Feb. ’09, to 75%-plus over the last ten months. Their three biggest competitors range from 4% to roughly 35% first-page search placement.
SEO is directly responsible for 600 sales, service and parts calls/leads/inquiries a month and 44% of the dealership’s unique website traffic.
II) Focus on Customer Reviews/Online Reputation:
By 2009, both Powell and Johnson realized the extraordinary impact online reviews were having on every breed of purchase, whether a $30 toaster or a $50,000 car. Johnson: “We constantly monitor our first-page visibility, so we knew our reviews were the first thing our potential customers saw, right on top at Google Local and all across the first pages.”
Before RBM North began a systematic Online Reputation Management campaign (in March ’09), they already had a very positive 4.5 out of 5 star rating, but had just a handful of reviews, so the few negative posts really stood out. Powell notes: “You’re always going to get a few negative reviews, especially on the service side. Our philosophy is don’t let negativity prevail, surround it with love – even a dealer with a 1-star rating today should take hope, with a review-generating process you’ll blanket the negatives with positives.”
RBM North’s System:
GM set the tone: everyone in the store knew this campaign was serious
Hit on the right sales/service team incentives: replace CSI survey bonuses with rewards for positive reviews
Constantly track reviews, so you can verbally respond to any unhappy customer immediately and try to resolve.
Hit on the right review-gathering process for your clientele ‘mindset’. Since their customers tend to be busy professionals, they are not overly aggressive. For each positive CSI survey, the simply follow-up, politely requesting a review
Use email templates customized for both sales/service, with links to many review sites, making it very easy for a customer to post
Make sure the template comes from the sales/service person they had rapport with
Set up dedicated online pages for each salesperson to showcase their reviews, convert customers, etc.
Include reviews in all email signatures
Give great customer service in the first place
Johnson notes that within a few months, the campaign had a major impact on walk-in traffic, but also phone and email inquiries. And RBM North’s case keenly illustrates that it’s not just a dealership’s overall positive rating, but the high volume of reviews, across many sites that ignited the business generation difference.
III) Inventory Listings – Robust, with Wide Reach:
The third ‘pillar’ for RBM North is having the richest, most robust inventory listings – with the widest reach/optimization across the Web. Randy Powell explains that the situation on the used side for a Mercedes dealer is unique. If there’s a level playing field on the new side, on the used side the car is the big ‘story,’ and that ‘story’ matters more than location. “Because each used Mercedes we have is unique, I can cast a national net. Say a person in LA is looking for a 2008 CLK convertible, and a local dealer has a red one with 20,000 miles, but I have a black and tan one with 8,000. It’s supply-and-demand, and if I create powerful visibility for the right cars, and post them the right way, I’ll get that sale.”
RBM North’s inventory listings are designed to create an emotional connection to the cars, to tell that ‘story’ through numerous photos and engaging text. To control the look of their images, they converted a service bay into a dedicated photo studio, and they write detailed comments on every single vehicle.
So, while the dealership doesn’t work with new-vehicle lead providers, they devote the majority of their digital budget to 3rd-party, used-lead providers/inventory site marketing.
* 60% of overall business is used, 40% new
* 70% of pre-owned business is not only out of their AOI, it’s out-of-state
* While average dealer saw used sales drop 3% last year, RBM North drove 31% growth
RBM North has never experienced that ‘happy time before the recession,’ and as a new store, the traditional ‘before-and-after’ business success measurements can prove irrelevant. How is their 85%-digital marketing strategy working? Amazingly well. While the average Mercedes dealership experienced 15.3% new-sales declines in ’09, RBM North fell only 6%, and their incredible 31% gains on the used side have been detailed. With the leanest marketing budget among their local competitors, they still have managed to corner 10% more market share.
The power of SEO/the website(s) in driving business stands out starkly, and when combined with review-site-generated business, it constitutes three-quarters of their Net-generated business, and 63% of total store business.
And SEO/Website/Reputation Management’s cost-efficiencies/ROI really jumps out: while it drives 74% of their total online business it represents only 15.5% of their digital spend – or a 5:1 ROI. While 3rd-party inventory sites represent a much larger 72% of the digital spend, they deliver 20% of total Internet-generated business. So, taken together, these ‘three pillars’ generate 94% of their online business and 80% of total store business.
RBM North’s innovative, three-pillar digital strategy was 100%-designed with people and consumer behavior in mind: firmly built around what car shoppers are actually doing (searching online) and what they seek most: the right dealership (with a positive online reputation) and the right car (rich, widespread inventory postings).
Randy Powell sums up: “This integrated strategy is simply the highest-impact, most cost-efficient, highest-ROI marketing we can do. There were so many ridiculous odds stacked against us, but we’re thriving. And how many stores that started at the beginning of a recession can say that.”