Web battleground

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Dealers are nervous about consumers' increasing opportunities to screen-shop for cars on the Internet. But the National Automobile Dealers Association is addressing their concerns with new Web-page kits.

NADA has created a partnership with Web site development company Cobalt Group to develop two Internet packages for its member dealers. Both packages offer site development, hosting, e-mail forms, automated inventory listing for cars and trucks, traffic reporting, Web links and upgrades for existing sites. A higher package offers all that, plus lead tracking, parts locating software and service management systems.

Dealers are responsible for their own advertising efforts to promote the site.

OTHER LINKS

Apart from its deal with the NADA, Cobalt also provides other dealers with Web sites.

"The dealer who goes with [NADA's Web sites] can walk right in and save the two years that it took us to get up to speed," says NADA Chairman Harold Wells, who owns Wells Automotive, a North Carolina dealership group. "Had [this offer] been up and running with NADA two years ago, we would have never gone through the agony of [launching and designing our own Web site] for ourselves. The NADA Cobalt package is the best deal for a dealer."

Mr. Wells, a dealer since 1956, says it took some convincing for him to take his dealership onto the Internet, especially after he found that a Web consultant would have charged him more than $7,000 to set up his site. He says that he and his staff eventually built a Web site for much less than that.

Mr. Wells says he touts his dealer site with TV, radio and print advertising.

NADA's offering has come as dozens of Internet car-buying services have emerged and put pressure on dealers to make sure shoppers find their way to brick-and-mortar showrooms.

PORTAL TO AUTO SITES

Dealers are watching the development last month of a portal Web site by auto information company Edmunds.com with Autobytel, AutoNationDirect, CarOrder.com, DriveOff.com, Greenlight.com and General Motors Corp.'s GMBuyPower.com. Edmunds and its chief competitor, Kelley Blue Book, provide only information on cars and trucks, with referrals to the Internet auto transaction sites.

The car-buying Web sites also are beginning to use traditional media to gain more consumer awareness.

Avi Steinlauf, marketing director of Edmunds.com, says his company only started advertising its site a few days after Christmas. The site claims a million unique visitors per month.

"About midway through last year, we realized that if we used traditional advertising, we might be able to increase awareness of our business" rather than relying on word of mouth, Mr. Steinlauf says.

OUTDOOR CAMPAIGN

Suissa Miller, Los Angeles, handles creative for the Edmunds.com out-of-home campaign themed, "Word of mouth." B Com3 Group's Starcom IP division, San Francisco, handles media.

The bulk of the media buy is in radio, outdoor and print, although online advertising is included. The effort already has generated a 50% increase in traffic, Mr. Steinlauf says.

Autobytel, with about 50% of the market, also has been very aggressive about its marketing. It was the first dot-com to advertise on the Super Bowl, when it spent $1.3 million in 1997. It ran another commercial during the '98 Super Bowl, but this year it skipped the event and used out of home, with placement in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

LINK WITH BANKS

Another site, 6-month-old DriveOff.com, broke a campaign in February business books including The Industry Standard, Business 2.0, Fast Company and Red Herring, as well as on regional radio. MGA Communications, Denver, handles advertising, PR, marketing communications and media buys for the site.

DriveOff makes its money by forming strategic partnerships with banks that finance auto deals. It allows consumers to shop, get a price and monthly payment quotes as well as financing information.

"We got 31% name recognition from the radio ads," says Andrea Pearson, executive director of marketing at DriveOff. "We're also doing online advertising, with banner ads, with a lot of promotional opportunities, car giveaways on Yahoo! and e-mail. We're building our database, and we're getting very good conversion rates from there to car purchases on the Web site."

REAL CARS, EXPERTS

Still, dealers such as Mr. Wells, remain optimistic about their place in the interactive auto-buying arena.

"The tremendous advantage that we as dealers have is that we have real cars, real showrooms, real experts, real people to handle the transaction and to service the products," says Mr. Wells.

"The dot-coms don't have that ability," he argues. "If we can get there first, we can convince the customer we have the professional ability to serve him without having to pay a third party."

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