Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, recently told Automotive News that his network of dealerships would be relying less upon customer leads supplied by third-party websites such as Cars.com, Edmunds.com, and TrueCar.com*, and would be improving AutoNation’s own website in an effort to grow organic consumer traffic and sales.

During the interview, Jackson said:

“I can pay them to build their brands, or I can build my own brand.”

Jackson may have forgotten something: Today’s car buyers don’t trust today’s car dealers. But he’s putting $50 million behind his brand building effort anyway.

Dealers and Digital Brand Building

Jackson isn’t the only automotive retailing executive who is embracing expenditures for digital brand building. John Holt, digital marketing chief for ADP Dealer Services, said in an interview with Automotive News that during the great recession many dealerships needed to pull back on spending for traditional forms of advertising. In the process, they discovered the power of their own websites.

Holt’s advice to dealers:

“Dealers should be spending their first dollars on their own websites. It’s your brand. Build a good website and drive traffic to it.”

The Return of One-Price Selling

Sonic Automotive’s Jeff Dyke, executive vice president of operations, seems to understand that car buyers don’t trust car dealers. In an interview with Automotive News, he eloquently explained:

“We just don’t [want] negotiations going back and forth and all that crap. We want to get out of all of that. We don’t see the need for it, and neither does the customer.”

Dyke is right, and his timing is perfect. Generation Y, whose members wear smartphones as permanent appendages, and which is poised to become the most influential demographic for dealers for years to come, don’t want to haggle over price, either. Plus, getting rid of price negotiation saves a bunch of time, making a dealership more efficient while speeding the process for the customer.

The Future of Third-Party Automotive Websites

These shifts in automotive retailing beg the following question: What happens to third-party websites, especially those that are over-dependent on driving leads for dealers, when the same car is the same price at every dealership?

At first, consumers will still want to check third-party prices against what the dealer is claiming is the best price. Trust won’t be granted overnight. By force of habit, they may even want to shop around to find the dealership that’s willing to sell the car for a few hundred bucks less.

Ultimately, though, the majority of car buyers will decide that it is easier and faster to simply go to the closest dealer to get a new Honda Accord, even if that dealer isn’t offering the absolute, lowest price within a 200-mile radius. Some people do that now. They’ll research what constitutes a good price, drive to the closest dealership, ask if the dealer can beat that price, and if the answer is yes, they’ll make a deal.

For third-party websites, this shift in automotive retailing and buyer attitudes means that lead generation revenue is clearly at risk. If the price of the new car is set and non-negotiable, there is no impetus for a consumer to submit a lead. And if consumers aren’t submitting leads, what happens to companies like Cars.com, Edmunds.com, and TrueCar.com?

Building Trust, Building Relationships

Third-party automotive websites possess one critical attribute that is unlikely to be found on a dealership website, and that attribute is…

OBJECTIVITY

Objectivity is what third-party automotive websites must leverage in order to survive, and objectivity is what can build strong bonds of consumer trust, inspire consumer loyalty, and create robust word-of-mouth and social media recommendation.

A car dealership wants to convince a consumer to buy a specific brand of vehicle. A third-party automotive website wants to help a consumer to buy the right vehicle, regardless of brand.

Focus on the Funnel, Not the Sale

To best leverage objectivity, a third-party automotive website must relentlessly focus on helping car buyers every step of the way, from the initial research phase at the top of the sales funnel, all the way through to the purchase at the bottom of the sales funnel, and then afterward with helpful information about the ownership experience.

The Right Content Recipe

Focusing on the funnel means the most successful third-party websites must build content that is specifically designed for everyday car buyers and car owners. It must be about the subjects that most matter to the average person, and about the vehicles most likely to be purchased by the average person.

Consider this: The 100 best selling makes and models account for more than 80 percent of all vehicle sales. First and foremost, your website should provide exhaustive research opportunities for those 100 vehicles.

People do tend to buy boring cars, but that doesn’t automatically mean that your content needs to be boring. The overall voice should be clear and authoritative, but also friendly and fun. Top quality is imperative, whether related to the writing and editing, the photography, or the video production, in order to inspire social sharing.

People won’t share your content if your content has the potential to embarrass them.

Publish opinions that nobody else has. Publish photography that nobody else has. Publish video that nobody else has. These factors matter to Google and other search engines, search engines drive the majority of your inbound traffic, and people are more likely to share unique, high-quality content via social channels.

Maximizing Revenue

Great content can drive revenue, but its main purpose is to market your brand to consumers. It has the power to develop a large base of loyal visitors who return to your site on a regular basis. For these people, consider building special content products and services just for them, available behind an advertising-free, subscription-only pay wall.

Alternatively, find more creative ways to present advertising on your site’s free pages to better serve both visitors and advertisers, driving more revenue in the process.

If the price of the new car is no longer debatable, third-party websites also need to find ways to pre-package financing, insurance, and warranties in advance, so that car buyers simply use the dealership for vehicle selection and delivery.

There’s opportunity, too, in generating service lead business. Cars continue to age to record levels, and when interest rates inevitably rise and new car sales inevitably cool, consumers will be looking for maintenance and repair deals.

Remember, a third-party automotive website is more likely to inspire trust than is a dealership website. Just don’t forget that trust is far easier to lose than it is to gain.

Objectivity, Trust, Loyalty, and Simplification are the Keys to the Future

Based on current automotive retailing trends, dealers are likely to reject traditional new-car selling methods, reducing and perhaps eliminating the need to buy leads from third-party automotive websites.

Therefore, third-party automotive websites must focus on leveraging their objectivity, building trust and inspiring loyalty with consumers, and simplifying the entire car buying and ownership experience from the top of the funnel to the bottom of the funnel, and beyond. – Christian Wardlaw

*At the time of publication, Speedy Daddy Media, Inc., does not create consumer content for any of these third-party websites