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ElectionI was reading an article recently about some of the differences in the ways the two campaigns operated during this past election and some things really jumped out at me.

From their first meeting in early 2007, the Obama team faced an uphill challenge. They had almost no money and were facing a primary opponent who had a lot of money and a well-established organization. But, they decided to make the Internet the core of their strategy. As a result, they were able to get more local volunteers on the ground in key states than their opponent, which was especially important in smaller states and caucus states.

Next, in the general election, they decided to actively compete in 18 states that no one thought they could win. Instead of focusing on the same blue states that democrats had always focused on, they would use the Internet to raise money and spread their message in those 18 states. No one took their strategy seriously, including the McCain camp.

Maybe we in the car business can learn a few lessons from this election strategy. First, the Internet has fully arrived as a mainstream advertising medium. More people access the Internet daily than read newspapers, and depending on which study you use, maybe even more than those who watch TV.

Second, Internet dollars go much further than traditional media dollars. How can we apply these lessons to our business? For years, there have been too many dealerships in the same market area competing for the same customers. That, coupled with a changing customer base that has increasingly turned to the Internet for research before buying a car, has produced an evolution that has changed the way you need to reach your prospects. 

In the past, throwing tens of thousands of dollars at newspaper, TV and radio ads seemed to work. But with newspaper subscription rates at an all-time low, over 200 channels of TV, satellite radio and MP3 players diminishing AM and FM, it’s never been harder to reach potential buyers using traditional media.

Today though, study after study tells us that car buyers go online for nearly everything—to buy, to service, even to order parts and accessories. And here’s the thing, you can reach them when they are actually looking for a new car, a service department, parts, or even accessories. Imagine you’re there immediately when someone just typed a search for used cars, right there at the right time, when they are actually looking to buy.

So, why do so many dealers continue to throw money at the dinosaurs when, for a fraction of the cost, they could reach people when and where it’s most critical? Work smarter, not harder. Never have truer words applied to an economic situation. Not only is it smarter to advertise online, it’s cheaper and completely trackable, and studies show that online buyers generally equal more gross too.

I was talking the other day with a general manager at a Toyota store and he asked me what I thought would happen if he spent his entire ad budget ($40,000) online. I thought about it and I asked another friend of mine who’s very knowledgeable about search engine marketing what he would do.

After much thought (since rarely anyone spends that much), we decided that my GM friend could absolutely dominate not only his entire market, but well beyond his PMA. With a great Web site completely optimized for all departments, microsites for niche buyers, and a pay-per-click campaign to complete the coverage, he could literally steal business from his immediate competitors and those outside his city too. In fact, we found that he would be hard-pressed to spend all of the money. He could still dominate his market for less than half of that budget. If I were a GM in a store today, I would absolutely move the bulk, if not all, of the advertising budget online. After all, that’s where the buyers are today.

So, like the Obama campaign, you can adapt a marketing strategy that reaches more people at a time when it’s most relevant. With the New Year coming and with the current economic climate, now is the perfect time to step back and evaluate what’s working and what’s not. If you’re ready to do something different and start getting different results, then consider an online-centered marketing approach. The great news is that many will read this article and do nothing. For those who read this and see the potential, a whole new level is waiting.

Originally Published in AutoDealerMonthly.

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