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Sunday, December 03, 2006 

Vol. 2 No. 34

J.D. Power Automotive Internet Roundtable 2.0

Once again, I was very eager to attend the latest JD Power Roundtable Conference, November 1-3, at the Red Rock Casino (in coordination with the gigantic Specialty Equipment Market Association “SEMA” show held annually in Las Vegas in November. By the way, if you have never been to a SEMA show, and have any interest at all in vehicle after market equipment, go to the next one, you have to see it to believe it.

Last year, my old friend Charlie Vogelheim, VP Automotive Development for JD Power and Associates (and probably the car industry's best, most entertaining MC short of Jay Leno), took the November International Automotive Roundtable in a different, timely and maybe just a bit daring direction, focusing on Automotive Internet related developments, with sponsors such as Yahoo!, Kelley Blue Book, AutoTrader, etc. Last year's debut Internet Roundtable turned out to be a great success, but I think this year's 2.0 version dramatically topped it, partially because it took a “break out” session format with three simultaneous tracks - “Dealerships,” “Online Advertising,” and “Web Site Development - and partially because, and there is no mistaking this after attending this two day roundtable, Internet things are getting frothy (note: I did not say “bubbly”) again.


The Keynote Marking the Evolution
After a Dealer Aftermarket Symposium at SEMA that afternoon, the roundtable officially opened with a keynote address Wednesday night by Dan Rosensweig, COO of Yahoo! His presentation on the progression of the Web, Web advertising, keywords, etc. was very insightful, although, from larger perspective, it did nothing more than confirm the dramatic changes that were evidenced by this roundtable in general. The fact is, a few years ago, I don't think the J.D. Power folks would have dedicated one of the largest roundtables of the year to exclusively automotive Internet developments, and, if they had, I doubt that it would have had the level of attendance in general, and particular, the participation on the podium and in the audience of so many executives from vehicle manufacturers and other “smokestack” industries. Yahoo! was one of the original leaders of the Web 1.0, and, as a high profile successful survivor, is still out ahead - I admit I forgot the statistic Rosensweig quoted as the actual number of people in the US on Yahoo per month, but it was an amazing percentage of the population...easy to see why the car folks value that traffic today.


A Busy First Day - No Less than 18 Separate Presentations or Break-Out Sessions, and then Some Networking that Night
The first full day kicked off with an informative and entertaining presentation by Dennis Galbraith, the head of Digital Marketing at J.D. Power and their resident Internet guru, followed by three concurrent break-out tracks, with the topic headinds of “Dealerships,” “Online Advertising,” and “Web Site Development.” Each break-out session looked so interesting and informative I found myself more than once attending half of one and then ducking out to get a small dose of the other two. A hazard of the business we are in, steeped in online vehicle sales, is that each of the three broad track categories is of interest to me on a business and personal level, so I found value in all three focus group topics. So much was presented, by so many excellent practioners, I can unfortunately only comment on those that I heard and even then on bits in pieces - this doesn't do justice to the information or value received, as this particular industry event was probably the most crammed full with valuable information of any I attended all year.

Given my current and past retail background in the business I did gravitate more towards the “Dealerships” focused break out sessions, and started the day with a presentation from John Holt, founder and CEO of The Cobalt Group, entitled “Next Generation Advertising and Marketing Solutions for Dealerships.” I'll comment a bit more on this latter, because it is central to the reoccurent theme that I thought I noticed throughout the Roundtable, that is, that for the first time in a major industry forum all present agreed that the dealer mix of advertising media, for effective promotion, has fundamentally changed - now even “old media” and “old world” folks see the serious dollars going in a different direction than they have in the last fifty or so years of automotive retailing.

I then attended a panel discussion entitled, “Future Dealership Sites” moderated by Scott Kane of JD Power, with representatives from some of the leading dealership Web site creators, which served to reemphasize the changes taking place. Another conclusion drawn from most of the participants that dealt with the topic is that the most valuable sales leads for new or used vehicles are generated from a dealer's own Web site, not third party or even manufacturer site generated leads.

There was then a general session on Consumer Generated Media, and then I attended another Dealerships track break-out session with the title/topic, “Sales Integration: Linking Shoppers from the Dealer Site to the Store.”


The Best Panel of the Day, and the Most Thought Provoking...
Although I don't think I heard a bad presentation or panel discussion all day long, but the one I liked the most, the most thought provoking, and, in a way probably the most controversial, was the Dealerships panel presentation entitled, ”Dealer Marketing Plan, 2006 and Beyond.” Now, maybe its because I'm a bit partial to dealer folks, but, in fact they do usually “tell it like it is” (or at least the way they see it), even up on stage - and this quality, I think, is what drew the “standing room only” event. Three of the four panelists came from dealerships, and one of them was my old friend Ralph Paglia, CRM/e-Business Director of Courtesy Chevrolet (see the Sept. 15, 2006, Vol. 2 No. 30 entry for some background). When you combine Ralph on stage with Gary Marcotte, Senior Vice President, Marketing and e-Commerce, for AutoNation, I and the rest of the audience learned that you not only get straight shooting, but a but a hell of a lively discussion as well, particularly when fielding audience questions.

It was this discussion on this panel that hit home for me the dramatic changes that the Internet has produced for marketing and selling cars, even in just the last few years. Specifically, while there might have been some fringe vendor groups that espoused the idea that the Internet would develop into one of, if not the, dominant media for retail dealer advertising, it certainly wasn't the thought of the mainstream with very few dealer advocates in that regard. As was told to me when I got into the retailing end of the business: "newspaper, newspaper, newspaper" was where consumers shopped for cars, and, while you could experiment and add a mix with radio, television, direct mail, etc., always the greatest portion of your media budget had to be devoted to newspaper print or you were downright foolish. Now things have very much changed, the expert dealer practioners on the podium, and the audience included, have come to the realization that Web based promotion, for new and used vehicles, is where the present and future focus lies for more efficient effective promotional dollars. Everyone agrees that newspaper print and classified advertising for retail consumers if not dying, is, indeed decreasing and trailing off, being replaced by creative Web based media. Also, significant, while it was said that newspaper advertising is not dying but trailing off, it was agreed that shotgun, direct mail impersonal type of solicitation was indeed dead, replaced by the the intelligent or sophisticated use of the Internet, at least for panel members.

What was also said by a panel member, that, I think tells how far the automotive retailing world has progressed, was that a few years ago in an average dealer twenty group maybe four or five members had an Internet eBusiness Development department - it was nice to have but not a necessity, more of a novelty. Now, on the other hand, if a twenty group member doesn't have such a structured department in his organization, and, indeed, doesn't devote full resources to that department, he/she is looked on as backward, lacking something as vital as a used car department or a parts department. We have come a long way from where we were just a few years ago, to where we are now. I'm sure many dealers do not still understand the positive impact, indeed, the future virtual necessity of devoting resources and energy to a dealership eBusiness department. What is clear though now, is that the best, most productive stores do understand this and are in the forefront because of this understanding.


The Final Session of the Day had a Group of Industry Icons
For the final break-out session of the day, I switched gears a bit and went to the “Web Site Development” track panel discussion. All of the sessions looked interesting, but this one had a lot of automotive Web industry icons that I always have enjoyed listening too and who always seem to have something of value to say. First, the panel was cleverly moderated by Cliff Banks, the Director, Editorial Development, of Ward's Dealer Business, I've known Cliff a while now and it was clear, with the talented folks on the panel, he was going to probe with some very insightful questions. First on the list was Chip Perry, CEO of AutoTrader.com. For my particular niche, online vehicle sales, I've always thought Chip was one of the smartest guys in the industry and his success with AutoTrader.com speaks for itself. AutoTrader.com is without doubt the leader in its category and with Chip's direction always seems to stay one step ahead of the pack. He was joined by Mich Golub, President of Cars.com, another online vehicle sales expert and leader in the field. John Holt, the Founder & CEO of Cobalt Group (mentioned above) joined them. It is important to note that these three veterans led their respective companies from the beginning, through the bubble times of the 1998-2000 period and through the trough of 2001-2003, and during all of it moved steadily forward to success. Stephen Henson, Executive Vice President Consumer Business and Marketing of Kelley Blue Book rounded out the panel of car veterans, and they were joined by someone new to the car business but not new to the online world, Jim Riesenbach, the new President & CEO of Autobytel. I had the pleasure of meeting Jim before his presentation, and, truth be known, I went to high school with his older brother (one more thing to make me feel up there in years).

You couldn't put together a more impressive panel, and what struck me is the fact that while most of these guys are at the top of their game - you probably couldn't create a rival to AutoTrader.com, Cars.com or Dealix (Cobalt) now, they have such market presence - each are still aggressively adding innovations and are in the forefront in driving new and improved services and processes for their dealer and consumer constitutiencies. It was an informative way to close a very informative day. Well actually Dennis Galbraith closed out the day after with his unique way of summarizing about, say 20 hours worth of content (remember three simultaneous break-out tracks), in about ten minutes.

After such an information filled day, it was great to relax in the cocktail reception that was hosted by J.D. Power. Once again, if you told me that a reception was scheduled to last three hours, for most venues, I'd say most folks would leave after the first hour or so...not at J.D. Roundtable, I stayed around at least an extra hour and I hear others stayed much longer...


Day Two: Technically a Half Day...but How Can You Not Call a Day with 9 Separate Presentations or Panel Discussions A Full Day?
The second day of the Roundtable opened with a general presentation on media and advertising, or to be accurate, digital media and advertising, with a panel filled with representatives of the “big guys” in the business, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Time, Inc. and TeamOne. More applicable to me was the next break-out session that followed, under the Dealerships track, entitled, “Successful Dealer Panel.” I'll tell you what is very clear to me (so clear perhaps that I might have mentioned it before), the automotive retail world is quickly being segregated by those dealers that “get it” and those that do not; and, unlike in prior times when the knowledge delta wasn't all that vast because dealer technology really didn't develop or change that quickly, in the last few years there has been a monumental change in how fast and how far the most efficient practices and operating tactics have developed. I say this, not only referring to the efficiencies of “sell side” new and used car promotion and related retailing developments (some dealers, I'd bet, still maintain that nothing will ever replace print advertising and that's where all of their budget will remain), but on the “buy side” for used car inventory purchases (I see that in our business, the dealers that don't shop for wholesale inventory on the Web are clearly at a disadvantage to those that do), in “F & I” (a few years ago DealerTrack was a start-up, now their electronic “F & I” service is in something like 80% of new car dealerships), in fixed operations (service, parts, and body shop), etc.

In retrospect, I think that dealerships were the very last independent businesses to transfer from the famous “green screen” computers to windows operated interfaces (suspended there by suppliers for almost twenty years). I say this because I think its a symbol of an industry that does not force or embrace change too quickly (the status quo has been good enough for a long time)...however, I think that is a symbol of the past, and things have changed more rapidly and fundamentally in the last few years than they have cumulatively in the prior thirty years.
The second break-out session of the day under the Dealerships track followed the theme of the first, and was entitled “Best Practices: Leads & Customers at the Dealership.” Again, from what I hear on panels like these, not only is change rapid now in automotive retailing, but, the economic efficiencies related to those who develop best practices will, I think, force the great wave of change throughout all stores as Darwin's survival of the fittest takes over - in these challenging times for retailers, the difference between profit and loss, in my estimation, in may cases will come down to adopting the efficiencies of technological and process developments. The gap in operating costs and revenues is widening between the dealers who “get it” and those who don't.

The final Dealerships track break-out session of the Roundtable dealt with search engine marketing, and the need for dealers to optimize their sites for organic search - again, what a change of a few years ago, when the vast majority of dealers considered their Web site as a sort of trendy “add-on,” in a world where any real sales leads came from third party sites. Now the collective knowledge as expressed in this Roundtable indicate that things have clearly reversed: the best sales leads are generated from a dealer's on Web site, which absolutely requires both an effective and comprehensively developed site, and the knowledge of how to attract business directly through Web based techniques like search engine marketing.


To Sum Up 2.0
In summing up the Automotive Internet Roundtable 2.0, from a very personal perspective, its clear that the automotive retailing is a more challenging business today than ever. Not only because of the big picture economic forces at work (energy costs, over supply etc.), but by current the current absolute necessity to keep up with technology and processes that today change more rapidly and with such measure, that it really is redefining the rules on how you successfully sell cars, whether you are a manufacturer or dealer (remember the “newspaper, newspaper, newspaper” rule above, that held for at least 50 or so years, that now is pretty much out the window).

In a way, the “2.0” change seems threatening to the smaller independents out there, not supported by the largest resource base or corporate parents. On the other hand, I see maybe even more opportunity today for those, large or small, that are flexible and, above all, willing to dedicate themselves to keeping up and learning to work smarter, ahead of the pack. The business generating reality of the Internet has created this “knowledge based” advantage like no other invention that preceded it. While of course having the most resources is still an advantage, unlike the past, resources alone do not define the winners in “2.0,” indeed, knowledge of how to most efficiently work the new systems that are evolving rapidly is the more fundamental key. One only has to look at the major newspaper chains to see the truth in this, as the, reflect the ever decrease in advertising of the present automotive sector and others. Those largest chains all have tremendous resources, but today if they have not already invested in an aggressive and successful online compenent, they seem to be as good sold to the investment community and their largest shareholders. Ironically, Yahoo! is now including a newspaper classified sales piece, as a commissioned seller, to even their smallest advertising customers, in an effort to be the single place to put promotional dollars, and, they claim, to be the most efficient source as they can more effectively place and service advertising buys. A few years ago that would have defined the ”tail waging the dog,” would it not? Like it or not, the world is changing, and this Roundtable did a good job identifying how in the car business in so many different ways.

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