By Jacob Stoller
With all the hype about the “newness” of the digital age, it’s hard to believe that the world’s first website turned thirty in 2019.
However, while social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have dominated the attention of marketers since the early 2000s, the website remains the essential marketing hub for independent shop owners, and the best bang for the buck for growing the business.
Modern websites, of course, bear little resemblance to their early predecessors.
Bells and whistles such as large format photos, audio and video content, map widgets, online scheduling systems, blogs and newsletters, and social media links have made the website much more than a medium for posting text-based information – today’s sites create an experience for the visitor, the quality of which determines if the visitor stays to learn more or moves on to the next link on Google.
To be successful, a modern website has to provide answers for the many questions that consumers factor into their shop choice.
“Today, those decisions go beyond having their vehicle serviced,” says Ray Fisher, executive director of the Automotive Service Association (ASA). “They want to know what services are available during hours and after hours, payment methods, rental cars, shuttle service, appointment availability and so much more.”
To grow awareness of website best practices, ASA and its official magazine Auto Inc. sponsor an annual “Top 10 Websites Contest,” in which members across the U.S. are judged by three panel members based on a set of fixed criteria.
The page with links to the winning sites can be accessed at the ASA website. Perusing the sites provides a great object lesson in marketing best practices. Here’s what we found.
All of the contest winning sites display a high level of technical proficiency, underlying the reality that in today’s environment, providing an attractive and navigable site is a minimum requirement. The following features were standard on these sites:
The good news is that the craft of website building has matured, and high-quality design and development services are widely available. Furthermore, affordable hosting and support services mean that you don’t have to get into the web business to host a great site.
The caveat is that if covering these bases is all that you do, your site is going to look like every other site out there. The real challenge, therefore, is to come up with a unique message, and this must be developed with significant input from the shop owner.
Web Marketing Tips
Looking beyond the basics, we found five marketing tips to help you take your website to the next level. These are not cast in stone – each needs to be adapted and applied as appropriate for your business.
Tip #1: Be a storyteller.
No marketing can succeed without engagement, and in websites as well as all other media, storytelling remains the most effective engagement tool.
Contest winner Connie and Dick’s Auto Service Center of Claremont, California (http://connieanddicks.com/) brings storytelling right to the website landing page, where visitors are introduced to over five decades of the shop’s history, replete with photos of 60s and 70s vintage cars and buildings that housed the business in its earlier days. The story flows naturally into the present day, where qualifications, testimonials, and maintenance tips are presented in a clear and logical fashion.
“Along with the clean, well-organized design, this website is unique in walking visitors through the history of the business up to the present day,” says contest judge Tony Molla.
Tip # 2: Don’t be afraid to stand out.
There’s an old saying that if you try to please everybody, you please nobody. Similarly, trying to be everything to everybody is one of the most common marketing mistakes.
Carmine’s Import Service of Kernersville, North Carolina (https://carminesimport.com/) leaves no doubt about where it stands – within seconds of bringing up their website, visitors see that this is a highly qualified specialist in European import vehicles. That might discourage somebody from bringing in a Ford pickup, but it’s probably what BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi owners want to hear.
“Carmine’s Import Service is not your typical import service shop, and our website aims to highlight that to our customers,” said the owner Carmine Cupani.
Tip #3: Build trust across the board.
Many consumers approach auto shops with trepidation. To counter this, the website for Sparks Car Care of Federal Way, Washington (https://sparkscc.com/) reassures visitors by reinforcing trust over and over again as they scroll down the home page. The journey begins with a friendly photo at the customer service desk combined with a “superior service with integrity” message and progresses down the page, with references to ratings, awards, a group photo of the staff looking up at the camera, and of course, customer testimonials.
“Our site lets our customers know that when they trust us with their vehicle, it’s in the best hands possible,” says the owners in their submission.
Tip #4: Make it personal.
Another way to counter visitor anxiety is to highlight the human element. Fix-it With Fred of Canton Ohio achieves this on its website (https://www.fixitwithfred.com/) by emphasizing that this is a family business. There’s even a bit of gentle family humour in the shop name, and the comment that he fixes the cars and she’s “the boss.”
Site visitors will notice a lack of cars in the photos. “We believe that customers know that a car shop deals with cars,” said the owners in their submission. “They are looking for people who they can trust and depend on.”
“The homepage draws you into a strong feeling of family right from the get-go,” said judge Carm Carpriotto. “They don’t hesitate to talk about trust, integrity, honesty, commitment and reliability, which are fundamental to their shop.”
Tip #5: Acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Convincing consumers that independents are fully qualified to maintain their vehicles is one of the toughest marketing chores that independents face. Sparks Computerized Car Care in Muncie Indiana brings this issue into the open its contest-winning website (https://sparksauto.net/).
The message is reinforced by the word “computerized” in the shop name, by the branding statement “Your Local Dealer Alterative”, and photos showing high-tech diagnostic tools. The site also makes good use of Napa’s interactive guides, which build confidence by demystifying the inner workings of vehicles.
“Unlike your local dealership, we work hard to provide outstanding personalized customer service and repairs at a fair price,” reads the website. “Using nothing but the latest tools and technology available, our team is able to diagnose and fix problems quickly and more efficiently.”
Over to you
The website is a powerful marketing tool, but it is only a delivery mechanism. The strategy is the hard part, as it requires that the owner answer some tough question. Who are our best customers? Do we provide a low-cost service, or are we looking for customers who are looking for high-end services? What kind of environment do we want to create in our shop? What are our strengths? The more definite your answers are, the better a chance you have of building a winning site that will be your anchor for an effective growth strategy.