| -

IRVINE, Calif. — Along with rolling out other product enhancements and sharing a dealer survey about the importance of the Internet, Autobytel has launched a new program aimed at eliminating duplicate leads.

Executives claim its Quality Advantage Program is the first in the industry to have a policy titled, "Incremental Sales Only." They stress that along with eliminating duplicate leads, the program can ensure that each lead an Autobytel member dealer receives is incremental — even if it means returning an Autobytel lead in favor of a competitor's lead. 

According to Autobytel analysis, 11 percent of online leads sent to dealers are customers the dealer has already received in the previous 30 days. The company said its Quality Advantage Program is designed to drop that percentage to zero.

Officials pointed out that this program is available at no extra charge to dealers. Autobytel also mentioned that the tool is different in that instead of a seven-day window for lead return and credit, member dealers can return Autobytel leads anytime within the month and as far out as three days past the end of the month in which the lead was delivered.

Autobytel indicated that the top reasons for a possible return were the dealer is unable to contact the consumer, it was an underage consumer or the consumer was not in-market.

With so many program commitments, Autobytel went through a step-by-step explanation of how the Quality Advantage Program is designed to operate. The process includes:

—Autobytel's Quality Advantage system is automatically alerted as soon as a lead reaches a dealership from any lead source.

—Quality Advantage assesses the lead and, if it is a duplicate, notifies the source with a request to remove the lead from the dealer's bill.

—Autobytel notifies the dealership of the leads which are duplicates.

—The lead that "clocks in" first is considered the valid lead.

Merlin Froyd, Internet manager of Sunrise Ford in North Hollywood, Calif., expects this new Autobytel program to benefit his dealership immensely.

"The company's commitment to making sure their leads are valid, qualified, and in-market before they reach my dealership is what has contributed to our higher ROI and improved closing ratios for the Internet department," Froyd noted.

"Their lead return policy is head and shoulders above any other lead provider and gives us the flexibility to evaluate and return those leads within the month — stress free," Froyd added.

Autobytel chief operating officer Mark Garms emphasized that this new program is meant to solidify the company's commitment to dealers to provide the best service and solutions possible.

"Quality Advantage raises the bar in our industry by offering a firm policy designed to ensure incremental sales and remove the headache and resource drain that duplicate leads can cause, regardless of the provider," Garms stated

"Nine out of 10 dealers say that third-party leads are a critical part of their business generation — but the same percentage rank better de-duplication of leads as an improvement they would like to see from their third-party providers," he explained.

"Autobytel has listened, and Quality Advantage delivers," Garms stressed.

Expansion of Autobytel E-mail Manager Campaign

In other product enhancements, Autobytel also highlighted the extension of its E-mail Managers program to all online leads, regardless of source.

Executives explained that member dealers can apply the benefits of E-mail Manager's customized campaigns to leads from OEMs, their own Web sites and other third parties at no extra cost. They also pointed out that all of these processes can be completed without having to engage multiple vendors.

The company indicated that E-mail Manager currently sends out nearly 200,000 branded, customized e-mail messages monthly for Autobytel member dealers. Executives pointed out the messages have an open rate of more than 50 percent higher than traditional e-mail campaigns.

The program is one of several "lead treatments" included with Autobytel's new-vehicle lead program for dealers. Executives also claimed that it's the only industry product to feature real-time "Dealer Alerts" sent as soon as a consumer opens or clicks on any of the links in the message.

"This important feature increases sales effectiveness and efficiency by enabling dealers to communicate with a potential car buyer precisely at the point when that consumer is engaged with a campaign e-mail — and armed with knowledge of the consumer's specific vehicle interest and place in the buying cycle," Autobytel emphasized.

After noting its potential, company official reiterated how E-Mail Manager operates for dealers who are unfamiliar with the process. They stress the solution can generate a unique, dealership-branded messages for each phase of the 90-day decision-to-purchase cycle, including:

—E-mail Manager campaigns are automatically deployed on a strategic 5-, 10-, 15-, 30-, 45-, 60-, and 90- day cycle, timed from the date the customer first submits a purchase request.

—Each message is dealership-branded and customized by vehicle type and by the consumer's position in the buying cycle.

—Each message covers issues relevant to the car buyers (vehicle information, trade-ins, lease vs. buy, safety features, etc.).

—Dealers receive real-time notification reports when a consumer engages with an e-mail, including opens, Web site click-throughs and survey responses to update the dealer on the consumer's buying status are instantly alerted by email when a customer clicks on the email campaign.

"Communicating with today's less-decisive car-buyer first, faster and longer is critical to closing a sale which is why E-mail Manager has proved to be so popular with our member dealers," Garms explained.

"In a resource-challenged environment, juggling multiple e-mail vendors for each lead source takes valuable time away from what dealers do best, build customer relationships and sell cars," he interjected.

"Our dealers have asked us to apply the advantages of E-mail Manager across the board, whether a lead comes from Ford, other third-parties, or their own Web site," Garmes noted.

"Autobytel listened and E-mail Manager Deluxe delivers," he stressed again.

iControl by Autobytel Launches

In yet more news about new products, the company rolled out a new solution called iControl by Autobytel.

What Autobytel said makes this new tool different from others in the industry is the potential for dealers to customize their mix of online consumer leads in crucial ways, including make and model. Executives pointed out dealers can ‘filter out' high demand vehicles and ‘filter in' hard to move units as well as better track the Web source and distance from the dealership.

According to a recent survey by Autobytel, dealers indicated that third-party leads continue to be a critical component of their marketing mix. The company survey also determined that dealers would welcome improvements that would offer them more control.

More than 90 percent of dealers who participated articulated four areas of importance for lead improvement:

—Control over leads based on where consumers are in the purchase process.

—Ability to adjust territory for desired models/lead sources.

—More control over where leads are sourced.

—Better de-duplication.

As a result of the survey findings, Autobytel executives explained how they used them as a blueprint for iControl by Autobytel was designed and how it operates.

They said iControl by Autobytel can be controlled at the dealership or at the dealer group level from a Web-based console. Executives emphasized how the console can offer dealerships the chance to change their lead patterns to reflect their marketing strategy, the conditions on the ground at their stores or broader industry patterns such as hikes in gas prices or changes in consumer demand.

Furthermore, Autobytel explained dealerships can contract or expand territories and increase, restrict or block specific model and lead Web sources. The company believes it makes it much easier for targeting inventory problems and focusing resources.

Officials went on to mention iControl by Autobytel was designed to work in tandem with any dealership CRM/lead management tool. They noted the solution can be implemented or remain on a stand-alone basis for Autobytel. Integrations with the dealership's full mix of leads, including OEM, dealer's Web site, and other third-party leads are possible, too.  

Autobytel selected DMEautomotive to power the iControl by Autobytel console, which also features comprehensive real-time reporting from DMEa's Red Rocket Technologies Platform, which provides dealer and group level marketing, reporting and analytics. 

The company delved further into the control areas that iControl by Autobytel offers:

—Lead Web Source: "iControl by Autobytel segments Autobytel network lead sources into five categories — research, quote, buying, enthusiast, and portal — based on the type of automotive publisher from where the lead is coming," Autobytel explained. "Each segment has a unique price point reflecting its average closing ratio. This enables dealers to configure their mix according to their dealership resources and goals — and to modulate their lead stream in conjunction with zip code and model demand.

—ZIP Code: "iControl by Autobytel enables dealers to apply different territories/zip codes to each of their models and lead sources," the company emphasized. "According to a recent Autobytel study, not only do online lead closing ratios vary by distance traveled — they also vary from state to state, and region to region. With iControl by Autobytel, dealers can make territory changes dynamically, while adjusting for ROI based on market analysis. For example, a dealership may choose to increase the territory range for sources with higher closing ratios and have a smaller territory for sources that close at a lower rate." 

—Make and Model: "Recent Autobytel/Survey.com research shows that a majority of dealers report that more than 20 percent or more of their current leads are for hot-selling, fast-moving inventory they really didn't need to spend money on to market online," executives shared. "iControl by Autobytel helps dealers spend their budget where it counts most by allowing them to increase the number of leads for hard to move models or, conversely, block or restrict leads by model for those high demand ‘hot' models."

Autobytel shared an example of how all of those control attributes can work in tandem.

If a dealership is having trouble moving trucks in the face of a sudden gas price hike, executives said the store personnel can instantly expand territory by specific ZIP codes, as well as increase the range of lead Web sources to broaden customer coverage for those trucks. At the same time, they emphasized the dealership can limit leads for high-demand, low-inventory models such as hybrids by restricting sources, and the territory to a more restricted range of potential service -customer zip codes closer to the dealership.

In order for all of these processes and resulting data to be used properly, Autobytel explained that the solution's reporting component is aimed at sharing usable information about available leads by make, model and ZIP code as well as closing ratio results by model, source and distance.

"This feedback loop gives dealers the real time information they need to adjust their iControl by Autobytel configuration and implement the best strategy for their dealership," Autobytel pointed out.

"In subsequent phases, the interface will include a control module to focus lead purchasing on specific sources, territories, or models," the company added.

Autobytel's product development teams spent more than six months soliciting input from dealers in order to develop the iControl by Autobytel. More than 60 dealers participated in a product test to ensure it addressed specific issues before coming to market.

One of the first dealerships to participate was i.g. Burton Co. Kevin Fuelling, director of Internet operations, shared his assessment of the solution.

"iControl by Autobytel represents a sea change in online lead delivery, providing us with many more opportunities than we've ever had before to make our lead strategy synch up with on-the-ground dealership realities," Fuelling mentioned.

"This is exactly the kind of program we have been waiting for. We talked. Autobytel listened and, with iControl by Autobytel, we're taking the results to the bank," he added.

Autobytel chief executive officer Jeff Coats has high hopes for what this new solution can do for dealers.

"We developed iControl by Autobytel to address what dealerships told us they wanted: an entirely new industry standard for third-party lead delivery that puts them firmly in control, enabling them to match their lead mix to the actual conditions on their dealership lots,"  Coats shared.

"With the economy still presenting significant challenges, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to online marketing," he continued.

"Dealers demand, and need, the ability to customize their online leads – so they are not paying for leads they do not want, cannot close or do not need. We listened, and iControl by Autobytel delivers," Coats went on to state.

Findings from Autobytel Internet Survey

To explain further about why Autobytel went to such lengths to develop more products to leverage the capability of the Interent, company officials shared findings from a national survey of dealerships they recently conducted.

The survey findings indicated that 93 percent of dealers reported that new and used third-party leads are an important part of their marketing mix and business generation. Meanwhile, 96 percent of dealers predict the Internet will play a larger role in their marketing in the next five years. 

Autobytel decided to undertake a survey since it's been 15 years since the company launched. Former dealer Pete Ellis rolled out a simple Web site back in 1995 with the hope of creating efficiencies for dealers and consumers alike.

More findings from the survey further demonstrate what Ellis believed the Internet could do for dealers.

Among the dealer participants, 93 percent of them have increased their Internet marketing budgets in the last five years. Of that segment, 56 percent of dealers boosted their Web budgets by 50 percent or more. A third of the group increased it 100 percent of more.

Dealers are not backing off marketing this year, according to the survey. More than half, 56 percent to be exact, expect to increase their marketing spending in 2010 from last year's levels. Meanwhile another 39 percent of dealers predict to spend an equal amount this year as they did in 2009.

Where these dealers are placing their marketing resources also is changing. The survey revealed that 69.5 of dealers plan to push their new marketing investments to the Internet. However, their enthusiasm for the use of traditional advertising mediums – television, radio and print – is mixed.

Just 30.5 percent of dealers surveyed said they would increase spending in one of those outlets this year. The majority (48.5 percent) expects to remain flat, but 21 percent expect to spend less in 2010.

Dealers appear to be shifting online because of their value of lead generated through the Web. Four reasons they mentioned most were:

—Having control over what I spend/how many leads I'm guaranteed to get.

—Because so many consumers use third-party research Web sites I'm able to capture ready-to-buy car shoppers.

—They're cost-efficient and measurable.

—They enable me to expand my reach across Web.

"Dealers cited being able to reach and sell to customers beyond their immediate market as a key advantage of the Internet, as well as the fact that it is a more cost-efficient and targeted medium than traditional media like TV and radio," Autobytel explained.

Finally, 87 percent of dealers polled believe in using a "mix" of leads from their own Web site and independent lead partners to "cover their online bases."

Coats reiterated that the survey results reinforce why Autobytel strives to serve dealers for their online initiatives.

"None of us — except perhaps for Pete — could have predicted 15 years ago the lasting and positive impact that one Web site would have on one of the world's largest industries," Coats commented.

"But Autobytel's underlying mission: to use technology to create a better, more efficient experience for both dealers and consumers is as resonant today as it was 15 years ago, which the results of this survey clearly illustrate," he concluded.