Jason Stum, Director of Strategy at Launch Digital Marketing, is a pioneer of digital marketing strategy for automotive. In the trenches since the industry moved online, he has been at the forefront of developing practices and systems that help dealers across the country. It was our pleasure to sit down with Jason and get his take on the direction of digital strategy today.
How did you get into the automotive industry (from the restaurant industry!)?
Like many people in this great business, I got here by accident. It was through a chance meeting with a friend of my now-wife that I was introduced to the car biz.
I spent most of my 20’s & 30’s in retail and restaurant management. Then one fateful day I went on a double date to a casino in Detroit with my now-wife, her friend, and her friend’s husband, Tim. While the ladies went off to gamble, Tim and I were shooting the breeze at the bar.
As a conversation starter, Tim asked me what I did for a living. Being a lifelong computer geek, I proudly told him that I sold computers. That seemed to excite him because he quickly replied that he was a salesperson as well. Happy to be hanging out with someone who was also in sales, I immediately followed up and asked him what he sold. That’s when he replied with the four words that changed my perception of the person I was hanging out with…
“I’m a car salesman” he said….
My first thought was “ugh…now I have to spend the rest of the evening making nice with a dirty car guy. Which is really too bad because I was just starting to like the guy too.”
Since I had detected Tim had a bit of a sarcastic (in a funny way) personality, I decided to embrace my own inner smartass and asked him: “so what’s it like being a dirty car salesman?”
He took my jab in stride and said he understood why I might feel that way. But then he proceeded to tell me the dealership he worked for was really busting that stereotype. Not liking the public’s perception of car salespeople either, he said he saw himself as a consultant who helps people buy the right cars for them, not as somebody who sells people cars.
His passion and perspective really spoke to me because that was exactly how I viewed my own job– I was helping people buy the right computers for their own needs, not trying to jam them up with an overpriced machine complete with hundreds of dollars of additional accessories I know they didn’t need.
I began to ask him more questions about his job, how it was different, and what he liked about it. By the end of our conversation, my perception of what a car salesperson could be changed dramatically.
A few days later, Tim called and said his boss wanted to interview me, although I had never told Tim that I was looking for a different opportunity. Ultimately I decided to take the interview even though I was completely happy with my current place of employment – I thought at worst, I’ll learn something new. So I show up for the interview, and one hour later I find myself being offered, and accepting, a job offer to start selling cars. From that moment on I was hooked, and officially became a “car guy.”
What’s your background in digital marketing?
For me, selling cars and digital marketing went hand in hand.
I mentioned I’ve always been a computer geek. I got my first computer – a Commodore 64 – when I was nine years old in 1982. I got my first PC (with both DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.0 pre-installed!) as a high school graduation gift in 1991. By the time the Internet was gaining public consciousness in 1995-96, I had taught myself HTML and began building my own websites.
When I started working at the dealership in 2008, a lot of dealerships didn’t have such a strong digital presence. While most of them had websites, many didn’t embrace the idea of having a full-blown web presence with all the information a potential customer might be looking for. A good example of this is that some dealerships wouldn’t list all of their inventory online because they wanted to use the website to generate leads to hook customers into that first dealership visit. A typical email lead response, or answer to someone who called about vehicle availability, was to say that only a small portion of the inventory was on the website. If they wanted to see what the dealership truly had to offer, they’d have to come in for a visit. Today, that mindset seems crazy, but less than ten years ago, it was fairly routine.
Understanding the role technology could play in the sales process, I knew that if I wanted to be successful, I was going to have to market and brand myself. Using the computer and technical skills that I had acquired since childhood paired with what I had learned about marketing from my time in the restaurant and retail industries, I started putting together my personal digital presence, or brand, so I could build stronger connections with my customers.
As I immersed myself in digital marketing, I looked for new ways to utilize technology to help my sales career. I was an early adopter of Twitter, scouring streams of tweets looking for people in my general area who were tweeting about shopping for a car, and would provide them with useful information. Facebook opened up to the general public not long after that, and I started branding myself there as well. I was using these digital media to help drive my own traffic, propel my own business, and connect to my customers after I sold them a car.
From there, I took a job at another dealership, where I was part of a team that had full control of the digital marketing presence. I was essentially what we’d call an Internet Manager. I was selling cars and handling internet leads, but I was also managing the website. Then in 2010, I moved to the LaFontaine Automotive Group where I worked at one dealership in a similar role. In addition, I offered to start dealership-specific Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels in an effort to take what I had learned from my personal branding efforts and translate that to the business side of things.
After six months of working in that capacity and showing how the social presence for one dealership could be directly tied to incremental car sales and increased customer satisfaction, I was given the opportunity to create, manage and maintain social media channels for all the dealerships in the group.
Being the Social Media Manager for the LaFontaine Automotive Group was my first official digital marketing role. As I progressed in that role, I was able to influence other areas of our digital marketing as well. From email marketing to SEM to video production and even blogging, we started to inspect and improve our digital efforts. Because of my involvement in so many aspects of the digital marketing, I was eventually promoted to be the Digital Marketing Manager for all the LaFontaine stores, as a part of the team responsible for overseeing the entire group’s digital footprint.
As the group continued to grow, so did our team. By 2015 we effectively created an in-house marketing agency that managed all the digital assets for the group complete with a team of web analysts, social media managers, graphic designers and a video production team. We even produced traditional TV and radio spots in addition to all we did with digital.
Through the car industry, I was able to cut my teeth as a digital marketer and get that hands-on experience that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else. That’s what I love about the car biz– it truly is one of the last bastions of unlimited opportunity.
What is the connection between Launch Digital Marketing and Dealer Inspire?
Dealer Inspire was born out of Launch Digital Marketing. Launch Digital Marketing started out as an SEO company in 2011, and as business grew within the automotive space, they found that it was really difficult to work efficiently with a lot of website providers. In many cases, our teams weren’t able to perform the necessary work on the websites themselves or in some cases even contact the website providers directly. Instead they’d have to send any requests or feedback to the dealership contact, who would forward it to the website provider, which would then take its sweet time implementing it.
Then, Joe Chura, our CEO, had one of those Think Bigger lightbulb moments: wouldn’t it be great if we had our own website platform and could really oversee the entire process? And that’s how Dealer Inspire was born. While Launch Digital Marketing still works with clients regardless of their web platform, it’s always exciting when the two sister companies get to team up and work hand in hand to help our client partners succeed.
With Dealer Inspire, our mission is to create a kick-ass website platform that is easy to work with, SEO-friendly, and innovative from a technological perspective. For example, Dealer Inspire was built with a mobile first mentality from the get go– before mobile penetration was anywhere near where it is today. I think of Dealer Inspire as a technology company as opposed to a service provider because the team is constantly innovating new technology, not just trying to recreate or build on what other people have already. Innovation, Communication, Learning, Transparency and Giving Back are the five core tenets of both companies. This helps us ensure that we’re constantly evolving and offering the biggest benefits to our partner clients.
What is Dealer Inspire’s most important message to dealers?
Our most important message is that we are partners to dealers and provide technology to solve their pain points. We really understand those pain points because so many of us come from the auto industry. Our CEO, Joe Chura, has a great story of moving from being an assembly line worker for Ford, to a Ford district manager, to a general manager for a Ford store, to starting two digital marketing companies. So we understand the pain points, and our mission is to improve and speed up and the car shopping process to help our partners sell more cars.
What should we be expecting from Dealer Inspire in the next year?
I’m really excited about our newest product, Online Shopper, which is a new digital retailing solution that is the first of its kind where an entire car deal can be worked online. I’ve seen other products from competing vendors that offer some kind of online buying process, but I have found that while they benefit the dealership by capturing more information from a consumer, they’re essentially fancy lead forms and don’t necessarily get the customer any closer to purchasing a vehicle online. Online Shopper provides that benefit.
Online Shopper is really a zero to one product because there wasn’t anything that existed before it that it was modeled after. The way it differs from other plugins and widgets is that it’s a collaborative process between the client and the salesperson, but it puts the customer in control of the situation. The customer goes through their own online buying process, which can be nonlinear– they can start one step and skip to another, going in whatever order works best for them. If they ever feel stuck or have a question, they can contact someone at the dealership directly through our integrated Conversations chat platform and quickly get an answer. Heck, the customer and the salesperson can even collaborate together online at the same time to adjust the sales price of the vehicle or their trade-in value for example.
Compare that to another product in this category that I recently saw at NADA that has a strict linear process. For example, if the customer states in the beginning of the process that they have a trade-in, this other product requires the consumer to upload 24 pictures of their car before they’re allowed to move on to the next step. Think about that for a minute. Making a potential customer stop to go outside, take all those photos, regardless of what they’re doing or what the weather is before they can move on in the process is crazy – that’s in the best interest of the dealer but not the customer. Online Shopper addresses all these issues. The other key factor of Online Shopper is it lets you sign the vast majority of the dealership’s specific paperwork online– on any device from wherever you are– before you come in, which really helps speed up the amount of time you’d have to spend in the dealership.
Another unique aspect of Online Shopper is that it can facilitate the completion of a sale that started in the showroom. Let’s say that someone comes in, test drives a vehicle, gets some finance and lease options from their sales consultant, but wants a day or two to think it over. The sales consultant can enter all that information into Online Shopper, and then email the customer a secure link which the customer can use to complete the process if they decide later that night to move forward with the purchase. No need for them to call, or to come back in. They can jump right into their own car deal online and keep the process moving forward at their own pace.
After two years of development and multiple iterations, Online Shopper is starting to go live on some dealership websites. We weren’t trying to rush to market, because our goal is to innovate in the best possible way. We’ve had it running at Cox Chevrolet for just under a month, and it’s generating seven leads a day, and they’ve sold five cars online since starting. The coolest part is that people have been emailing in and posting on the dealership Facebook page about how much they love being able to do so much of the car buying process online. So we’re seeing a lot of positive feedback from customers, and we’re really confident that Online Shopper will really help those dealerships that embrace digital retailing, not just as a means to generate leads, but as a shift in the entire process– this will help them get in front of the game going into 2017 and beyond.
We saw you guys did some crazy demos at NADA– can you tell us a bit about that?
So that was a really innovative idea. Xtreme Xperience is a racing school in New Orleans where you can drive exotic supercars together with a professional who helps you get these vehicles upwards of 140 MPH. When you’re in the car and racing on the track the whole experience is videotaped, it’s really cool. So we decided to do a whole portion of our demos with Xtreme Xperience while at NADA– people could drive these racecars around the track, have authentic New Orleans food, listen to live New Orleans music, and while that’s going on, take in a demo of the products and services Dealer Inspire has to offer. The feedback we got was fantastic, everyone who had the experience loved it, and we even heard other vendors asking why they hadn’t thought of it. We also had a traditional booth, but we wanted to offer something different, something special to break the monotony of wandering the NADA floor.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since 2008?
The balance of information has shifted to the consumer, and that’s a good thing. In 2008, the dealership held most of the information about cars, availability, and pricing, to compel someone to come visit the showroom. Since about 2010-2011, the information has swung in the other direction, toward the customer. And dealerships that embrace that transparency and embrace the mindset of helping people buy cars and get the service they need are the ones who are going to succeed.
Customer retention is another thing that’s changed– it seems retention rates are declining almost every year. With today’s online research possibilities especially on mobile, and with such a huge variety of places to service a vehicle, retaining your customers by offering a satisfactory experience is no longer a given. Just because you sold one car doesn’t mean you’ll be top of mind for a customer’s next purchase or service need. I’ve always said that selling the car is the very first step in the relationship. The efforts the sales people and dealership makes to continue and build upon that relationship after the sale is what matters most. So dealerships need to be much more dedicated about keeping customers and earning their loyalty. It’s a big challenge in the industry.
Can you tell us about your personal blog?
Back in 2013, I launched my blog, Marketpunch.auto. The impetus behind it was that I was always trying to learn and improve as a digital marketer, and although there were plenty of digital marketing how-tos and guides on sites like Social Media Examiner or Moz, there was very little for automotive specifically. The automotive digital marketing arena is really quite unique. So while you can apply many standard digital marketing concepts, the car shopping process has its own subtleties that weren’t addressed by general guides. At the same time I found that while there were (and are) plenty of online communities dedicated to automotive digital marketing, mostly you’d find people telling you why you should do something or why you should not do something, but not too many who were willing to share how to do something. So I started MarketPunch with the mission of giving my audience creative automotive digital marketing insights they could actually use immediately. Whether I was publishing a podcast or a blog post, it wasn’t going to be here’s why you need to invest money in social media– it was going to be here’s how you can take your social media to the next level by following these steps. It was bringing the how into the why.
We’ve taken that same approach at Launch Digital Marketing. We have an awesome blog that many of our in-house subject matter experts contribute regularly to and we also just launched a podcast that I’m hosting called Think Bigger. With each episode, our goal is to help dealerships upgrade their digital marketing game. It’s the same mindset I was using on MarketPunch– to publish actionable information car dealers can use right now. We want to be a source of education for not just our clients and not just for our team members, but for any car dealership out there that wants to upgrade its digital marketing.
And now for something more personal: what’s your favorite car?
My favorite car is my first car, the one I got for my 16th birthday– a 1986 Chrysler LeBaron. That will forever be my favorite car just because it was the first and has all the high school memories. If I could find a mint ‘86 LeBaron online somewhere, in maroon, with a maroon interior, just like the one I had, I would buy it in a heartbeat, put in the garage, and never drive it.
And just so we really get to know you– if you were stranded on a desert island, what would be the three things you would have with you? Since we know you love computers, we’re going to disqualify computers and smartphones!
These desert island questions are tricky, because I need to know the extenuating circumstances: am I alone? How did I get to the desert island? Are my wife and kids with me? Anyway, assuming I was stuck all by my lonesome, I would bring:
One– peanut butter. An endless supply of peanut butter. I love peanut butter and could eat it every day for the rest of my life.
Two– a guitar. I used to fancy myself as a budding musician, not so much anymore, but I do still pick it up. That would help entertain me on the long desert island days.
With peanut butter and a guitar, I’m not sure I would need anything else, but I’d say pen and paper (can I count that as one?). Writing would keep me sane, it’s very therapeutic.
Jason, thank you so much for your time and expertise! We can’t wait to see what’s next!