DealerRefresh is one of the auto industry’s most visited and trusted online destinations for tens of thousands of dealers and automotive professionals. Founded in 2005 by Jeff Kershner before just about anyone in the auto business was blogging, DealerRefresh quickly became a popular and credible place for savvy dealers and it continues to grow and win loyalists. More than a decade later, DealerRefresh continues to run strong and is poised for an exciting new chapter.
We had the opportunity to have a conversation with Jeff and Ryan Gerardi, the two guys behind the blog and forum, to get a deeper understanding to why and how DealerRefresh became what it is today, and what lies ahead for the site and the auto retail business.
Jeff, who is Owner and Chief Editor, has decades of experience in the auto industry. He has worked in every dealership department and focuses on media and customer service.
Ryan, who is Assistant Editor and also head of advertising through his own company AutoConversion, is also a long-time blogger in the auto space who focuses on building connections between dealers and vendors.
With their vast experience in the auto business since the dawn of new media in the early 2000’s with dealerships, vendors, and car buyers, Jeff and Ryan have both played integral roles in the digital evolution of our business. We were lucky enough to chat with them about dealership marketing, the best resources for dealers, and the future of the industry.
Jeff, what led you to start DealerRefresh?
I was working at a dealership about 12 years ago and when it came to digital marketing, no one spoke my language. I was talking about paid search and online merchandising and using photos and SEO, and I found that no one knew what I was talking about. So I thought I’d start a blog and maybe attract a few people to have conversations with, and from there it kept growing.
What unique value does DealerRefresh provide for users?
Ryan: DealerRefresh is a new media outlet that provides high-quality educational blog content and a discussion forum. It brings dealers and thought leaders to a place where they can share ideas, explore topics that are relevant to them, and hash out issues.
Jeff: One thing that makes us different from social media platforms like Facebook is the quality and searchability of our content. People will raise a lot of topics on Facebook, but most conversations don’t necessarily focus so much on solving problems, and they often get sidetracked with irrelevant comments. And unlike on Facebook where once a conversation is over it gets buried, on DealerRefresh these conversations can continue for months or even years in some instances.
DealerRefresh sees so much problem solving. Dealers can connect with other dealers dealing with the same issues they are, and get answers. They can usually find the exact topic they’re looking for because we have years of archived content. We also monitor discussions to keep them on track. There’s no place for politics on DealerRefresh because it’s not great, relevant information to our industry. We want the expertise and the quality.
Ryan: And because the content and conversations on DealerRefresh are ongoing, you can see how our thinking about topics and issues changes over time with people continually offering their experience and expertise.
Ryan, what led you to DealerRefresh and how is it integrated with AutoConversion?
Like Jeff, I got the itch to start blogging in 2006 and launched my first blog – BlogPro Automotive, which I continue to operate today. At that time, Jeff and I were about the only ones in our space blogging, maybe two or three others at most. That’s how we met!
Over the years we’ve painted a professional friendship and in the Fall of 2015 we put together a joint venture where AutoConversion could begin introducing sponsored content to DealerRefresh. 2016 was a great year for DealerRefresh because we reinvigorated the member base with fresh new content it’s not seen before.
What is the biggest mistake most dealerships make in their digital marketing strategy?
Jeff: How they’re spending their ad dollars, and I would have said the same thing five or ten years ago – this is a recurrent problem. What I mean by this is that dealerships are not diversifying their ad spend enough. For example, dealerships often spend a huge proportion of their advertising budget on paid search, but simply getting noticed is not enough if they’re not getting noticed by the right people or focusing on the right channels.
Each dealership is different and you have to come up with your own magic sauce. Know your clientele. I’m currently at a Benz dealership with a clientele that is not interested in text features, while at my previous position at Toyota, we killed it with texting: to schedule appointments, interact with the service department, ask questions. Currently, I don’t get texts, and it’s not because people don’t know about it– it’s on our website, our email templates, all over, and nobody does it. Why? Probably because our clientele is typically 40-45 years old and isn’t as used to texting. So should we be spending a lot of money on that? Do we get a lot of chat? We just don’t. Think about what works for your dealership.
Dealerships also need to do a better job at service. The service department is what keeps the customer. If a customer enjoys coming to your service department, they will spend extra money for a great experience. I would take some of my marketing budget and put it into the service department to look at different ways to make that experience as easy and enjoyable as possible for customers.
Manufacturers are creating solutions for dealerships, but the dealerships aren’t necessarily adapting. This also means that DMS platforms must be reevaluated to make it easier for dealerships to integrate new technologies and solutions.
Ryan: The biggest mistake I see dealers make is not being open to learning about everything that’s available to them, particularly from vendors. A lot of folks at the dealer level are so bogged down and preoccupied with the short-term aspect of the business they wind up tuning out vendors until their backs are against the wall, moving from provider to provider. Dealers do get bombarded by vendors and that is a challenge, but there are a lot of great products out there and dealers need to be proactive and calculated about their partner strategy.
What are the major changes you see coming to auto in the next few years, and how should dealers adapt?
Ryan: The biggest change I see is how cars are owned and used. Most people would agree that the traditional franchise model is an aging system, but nobody knows how long there is until before it’s extinct, if ever – it could be five years or 25 years from now or more. Reality is that we can no longer rely on the traditional franchise model remaining the same for too long.
For example, Tesla has busted the traditional manufacturer-franchise model while still embracing some aspects of it. Companies like Vroom are impacting the way independent dealer groups operate, with varied success. Then you have services like Uber and Lyft, car2go and Zipcar where you’re renting cars per hour, paying per ride. These services in particular are a hybrid of mass transit that affect vehicle ownership. The whole idea of owning a car is diminishing. That doesn’t mean there will come a time when nobody owns a car – nothing beats that feeling of a driving a great car. But particularly in the city and suburbs, there are so many opportunities to beckon a car that the idea of owning one is becoming less essential.
The savvy dealer must not only be open to adapting to a transforming model, but be proactive about it. Who’s to say a dealership can’t set up a fleet of autonomous vehicles on their lot to be beckoned by local residents, or provide charging stations for electric vehicles? They have the real estate to work with and access to capital. I believe dealers must be thinking outside the box like this.
The adapting dealership must at the same time concentrate on growing market share and profitability. I believe the keys to this come through their used car business and as Jeff already said, through service. The two things must be a huge part of their businesses.
Jeff: Actually Ryan, I disagree, the mobility changes are being overblown. The technology is evolving, but when you actually visit a dealership and see what people still want, the changes are not as drastic as some would have you believe. Right now, most people don’t want to buy online, and most one-price dealerships fail. I find that for most people, it’s human nature to want to negotiate. In a generation or two, we’ll start to see a lot more people wanting to buy online. And as much as the manufacturers might like the idea of getting rid of dealerships, then they wouldn’t sell any cars.
I think the big opportunity is in the service department. Service departments accelerating with change – we have iPads, but that’s not enough. We have ways of scheduling online, but the systems are messy. The big change to make is to connect more of the service into the sales. These have typically run as two separate departments. Dealers must learn how to merge them. This is about technology, but it’s also about great data – keeping in touch with customers using the right methods. There are already solutions that help with that but it needs to be a lot more seamless.
Ryan: Jeff, would you say this is a priority even for a dealership that has a lot of business, and is really busy with customers?
Jeff: There’s no doubt that dealerships are busy, but there’s warranty work and then there’s customer work. Just because they’re busy doesn’t mean they’re making money. You want to build efficiency so you can focus on more profitable work.
Ryan: So many vehicle owners, even when they’re still in warranty, take their cars for repairs to someplace other than the dealership. So I do agree there is plenty of opportunity for more business.
Jeff: What’s astonishing is that even when dealerships offer services for free, people don’t come in because in their mind, if they come into the dealership, it’s not going to be quick, even though it is. Dealers don’t market to the consumer in the right way. They don’t talk about these benefits. People think it costs too much at the dealership, and it doesn’t. And another benefit of a dealership for service is that a smaller service shop could shut down, and if they’ve made a mistake with your vehicle, you’re out of luck. A dealership has the insurance to cover that. So we aren’t getting that in front of the consumer like we should.
What are your goals for DealerRefresh in 2017? How would you like to see DealerRefresh evolve?
Jeff: We’d like to see more member interaction and engagement within the forums. There are so many platforms and channels – we’d like to provide our users with really great content that is valuable and not just self-promotional. We’re working on some more video-based platforms. And with our sponsored content, we want to present value and let dealers find products that work for them without bombarding them.
Ryan: Something new we’re committed to is live broadcast content. We’re less focused on traditional webinars because there are plenty of those. We want to to do a hybrid between a webinar and a talk show. We’re also focused on finding ways to bring more value to our current members. Aside from members being able to consume blog content and use the forums, we want to bring more value to them on a day to day basis, so we’re working on some strategic alliances to provide members with tools and benefits. And we’ll keep investing in the quality of our contributed pieces, holding them to the highest standards. We are always looking for ways to bring value to contributors as well.
What’s your favorite car movie?
Ryan: Smokey and the Bandit because it’s a classic, but also Minority Report because of it attempt to accurately predict transit by 2030. The producers hired engineers to come up with futuristic auto technology, and we’re actually seeing it start to happen – it was meant to be as accurate as possible!
Jeff: Tron Legacy. I’ve seen it so many times.
We love Jeff and Ryan’s valuable insights. Use these tips to make sure your dealership is constantly thinking about ways to provide value to its particular clientele, making the buying and owning experiences better, and fostering loyalty and trust. Happy customers mean more success for your dealership.