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Does Your Auto Dealer SEM Pass Inspection?

Does Your Auto Dealer SEM Pass Inspection?

Forthea has been fortunate to work with a number of automotive dealerships’ digital marketing strategy, so we know just how hard it is to get ahead in one of the more competitive online industries. We also know that auto dealerships are flooded daily with pitches from every “digital automotive agency” in the country. There seem to be thousands of these “experts” and the basic gist of most of these pitches is

“We’re automotive marketing experts, that’s ALL we do, so we must be great at it.”

I’d argue that if that is ALL they do, they’re probably taking the same campaign template and applying it to any client they bring on, which is not a recipe for success for their clients. It IS a great business model for them though!

If you don’t live for search engine marketing (SEM) – or are just too busy trying to make this month’s sales quota – it’s difficult to determine the good SEM practitioners from the ones who offer McSearch type strategy and results. In an effort to help out auto dealerships, Forthea offers the following list of questions to help determine if your SEM partner passes inspection.

1. Do I have access to my auto dealer search engine marketing campaign?

The first sign of any McSearch agency is their claim to have a black box that has a proprietary algorithm, special formula, or SEM monkeys that optimize your campaign on a daily basis. While that very well may be true, if you can’t see it, how do you know anything is being done on your campaign or if key metrics are being reported are accurate? To put it another way, would you buy a car from a dealership that didn’t allow you to look under the hood? Me neither, without transparency, there can’t be trust.

2. Will my campaign be dynamic or managed by a (human) SEM professional?

Automotive SEM providers often use Dynamic Search Ads (DSA) or similar software to show ads based on the content of your site, rather than the targeted keywords that you choose. While this makes campaign management very easy (and profitable) for the agency and often delivers a lot of online traffic, it will never be as targeted as a campaign set up based on specific keywords and managed by a non-monkey SEM professional. Using DSA in combination with a trained watchful eye, and a fully customized campaign is your best bet for online success.

3. Can I customize my campaign for different promotions? How often?

Ads that outline specific prices and promotions will always be more effective and stand out in the sea of automotive ads. If you cannot offer timely promotions for key Holidays, discounts, used specials, or model year, you are not being given the full arsenal you require to win the fight online.

For example, we recently had an automotive partner who had a 2015 Alfa Romeo that needed to sell immediately. We immediately built a remarketing campaign featuring an image and associated FAB’s of the exact model and sold it with 7 business days. Without that type of flexibility, that Alfa may have still been sitting there in 2016.

4. What are your thoughts on the following campaign components?


If the answer is “We target 20 miles around your dealership,” run. That’s a McSearch answer. It’s lazy and more importantly, what happens when a competitor is located with 20 miles and uses their service as well? It is essential the agency look at the cars you are selling and the demographics of their buyers.  Once you’ve identified your buyer persona, target specifically to zip codes and communities that match your ideal candidates.  In a perfect world, if you are running a radius targeting, you will at least increase bids for high converting zip codes and searchers that are closer in proximity to your dealership and have been shown to convert to customers at a much higher rate.


Any potential SEM needs to understand the difficulties involved in lead generation and then report on meaningful metrics well past “Impressions”, “Clicks,” and “Click-Through-Rate.” You need measurable results! In the end, any lead generation campaign will be about generating leads such as request forms, phone calls, live chats, and foot traffic. All leads need to be tracked back to their advertising source, but the attribution doesn’t stop there. The quality of each lead can be analyzed further. People submit their name and phone number when submitting a form. Dynamic phone numbers can be used to track the ad source and the phone calls can be recorded and listened to later. Even the gap between online advertising and in store visits is beginning to close. The ultimate goal is work past simply reporting on conversions toward and ROI model based on metrics you and your agency can agree on.


Any answer that says, “we don’t use remarketing” is unacceptable. A car purchase is a considered purchase, as people in the market for a car spend a lot of time online researching the various attributes and prices of their competitive car set. If your dealership is one of the first they look at, you want desperately to remain top of mind and do your best to bring them back to the site to schedule a test drive. Very few things work as well as remarketing to make this happen. Additionally, remarketing can be used a number of ways, including to feature new models and new promotions to those who have been to your site or “similar” people who behave as your site visitors do online.

Remarketing Lists for Search (RLSA)

RLSA is similar to remarketing, in that it allows you to show an ad to an audience of people who have either been to your site or people similar to them. However, with RLSA, a traditional text ad shows within the normal search engine results page (SERP) rather than a banner that follows a searcher around the web. The positives are three-fold: 1) RLSA keeps you top of mind 2) RLSA allows you to open up to more broad keywords since searchers have put themselves in the proper context by visiting your site in the past 3) It’s a LOT less “stalk-ish” than badly done remarketing.  Go to Jimmy Johns , or these guys or even these guys to see how badly done remarketing is achieved.

Customer Match

This is being rolled out to Google Adwords accounts as I type, since it was first announced on September 27. It allows you to create remarketing lists based on customer e-mails. Theoretically, you could target your most valuable customers as specifically as you could send an e-mail to them, without getting spammed out or ignored all-together. Chances are, it’s not available to you yet (at time of writing, October 31,2015) but an SEM agency should know the latest opportunities available to their customers and more importantly, see the value for a channel like this in the auto dealer industry.

5. What are the latest trends in online marketing we should be aware of to make our campaign successful?

Forthea recently hosted an automotive sales & services insights meeting with our Google team at Top Golf in Katy. Two things became very clear; 1) We are better at SEM than we are at golf. 2) If you don’t have a strategy to create a plan around the information below, you will be at a significant disadvantage to those who do. Here are the facts…

Service Drives Sales

  • 58% of drivers agreed with the statement “I like to drive my cars as long as I can – until they’re ready for the junkyard”
  • $310 billion was spent by consumers in 2013 on vehicle repair
  • There were 70,000,000 monthly parts and services searches on Google in 2014
  • Service is the top profit margin channel at your dealership
    • New Car Profit Margin = 6-8%
    • Auto Part Profit Margin = 20-28%
    • Vehicle Service Labor Profit = 50-65%
  • Shoppers who service their vehicle at your dealership are 2X more likely to purchase / lease from you


Get the Sale on the Site

  • The average car buyer makes ONLY6 dealer visits in 2014, compared to 5 in 2005
  • The average car buyer considers 4 brands during their new car search, compared to 3 in 2014
  • ¾ of car buying research is conducted online, compared to 62% in 2011

Mobile Matters

  • 460% mobile search growth since 2011, 98% mobile search growth since 2014
  • 75% of people ages 18-44 use mobile device to research service centers

If you’d like the accompanying strategy that goes along with these trends and insights, contact Forthea and we can schedule a meeting to go over your goals for 2016.

Jon Bowers
Jon has seen it all. He is a digital team lead at Forthea and has been part of the online marketing community since its emergence in the 1990s, but don’t worry, he’s vowed to never use phrases like think outside the box, ninja, rock star, or visionary entrepreneur.


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