Robert Berris / Innovation Marketing / April 9th, 2016

Why Most Car Dealership Websites Fail to Drive Sales

Consider the time and effort required to design a single vehicle. Countless hours are spent on every detail: from the aerodynamics of the body to the feel of the hand-stitched interior. Bringing a new model car to market often takes as much as three years. That’s a years-long investment in simply crafting the aesthetic a company hopes will inspire its consumers to buy.

Of course, the work doesn’t end there. While the specifications and features certainly matter to most consumers, buying a car is an intensely emotional decision. To win these customers, car companies craft beautiful stories aligned with consumer aspirations and self-perception. Though the (generally over-the-top) car commercial has been an American staple for decades, digital media have opened a bevy of new channels for car manufacturers to tell their stories.


And they’ve invested heavily in these new channels, because automotive manufacturers know the car buying experience isn’t just about the vehicle, it’s about the investment in a lifestyle. Dealerships can – and must – do more to give consumers confidence in that investment.

The Old Ways Aren’t Best

The digital revolution has transformed the car buying experience. The balance of information has shifted strongly in favor of consumers – car buyers now leverage a wealth of data when making their decisions.

Many dealers, find themselves struggling to truly connect with buyers armed with weeks worth of online research, peer recommendations and value estimates. Dealers sit in the middle of a new, broadening gap – customers have more access to information than ever, yet are still seeking guidance from their local dealerships.

And those local dealers fall short.


Local and regional dealers don’t match the sleek sophistication and polish of the national manufacturers they represent. This disparity is really evident when you look at the typical dealer website. More often than not, dealer sites don’t connect with the automakers’ national messaging, and the user experience is often inconsistent. Design is often poor, multiple calls-to-action distract users and sites simply aren’t built to perform to user expectations.

For major consumer goods, like cars, the website experience matters. If pages don’t load in less than 2 seconds, visitors will drop off. If your site design doesn’t inspire trust, shoppers will seek information elsewhere.

Consumers’ research and OEM business requirements boil down to one thing: dealerships often have very little control over the transaction. While that may seem daunting, digital channels offer an opportunity for dealers to reclaim their place in the car-buying journey. It starts with a few necessary steps to bridge the experience gap that most consumers face.

Design Matters

Web design plays an integral role in trust. 94% of consumers cite web design as a signal as to whether they can trust a brand. According to, buyers find valuable information on dealer sites, but find them only slightly more trustworthy than advertising. Improving website usability and design can help keep shoppers on your site, rather than third-party research sites. Rather than distracting calls for financing and incentives, simply offer what visitors want: the vehicle and its specifications.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 3.18.12 PM
Source: Insights

Mobile is Important

If your site isn’t built for mobile, you have a problem. According to a 2014 AutoTrader report, 50% of Millennial buyers used a mobile device to shop, and it expects 80% of car buyers to shop on multiple devices by 2020. Beyond the SEO implications of a mobile-friendly site, dealers simply have to meet customers where they shop. Companies without a responsive website are already behind the curve, and they’ll only fall further if they fail to invest in mobile.

Optimize for Search

Speaking of SEO, it didn’t die three years ago. It should still be a vital digital marketing concern for car dealerships. 49% of automotive users start on search engines when looking for their next car. Your site needs the technical architecture to stand out in search. If you’re not constantly optimizing your site’s content to help users on a regular basis, you’re missing out.

Clicks Count

Consumers shouldn’t need more than four clicks to find a vehicle or service.  More often than not, consumers now know exactly what they’re looking for – a great user experience empowers your buyer to find and select the vehicle they want.

Measurement is Key

Knowing isn’t just half the battle; in digital, it’s everything. It’s critical to understand how users convert at each stage of your funnel, from acquisition to requesting a test drive.

The car buying experience isn’t necessarily broken, but dealerships have a long way to go to bring customers back into the fold. A compelling website, focusing on great user experience, is the first step toward bridging the gap in the automotive experience. Automotive companies invest a great deal in their physical products; it’s time they make the same investment in their customer experiences.

  • Christopher Burns

    I’ve been looking at a lot of dealership websites lately and it’s been frustrating. Like you said about multiple calls to action, but that doesn’t really drive how bad it is! We’re talking literally 3+ popups telling me to chat or click this thing or that thing. It’s all loud and in your face. All I want to do is look at pretty pictures of cars with prices to find the one I want. I visited the dealership site because I didn’t want to get bugged by a salesman just to see what is available… and as soon as the page loads, guess what, there’s a virtual salesman popup blocking my ability to poke around.

    • Robert Berris

      Thanks for the , Chris.

      I think it’s tough for salespeople, who have worked in a traditional sales industry for decades, to approach sales in a softer way.

      I will say, when I recently purchased a car, the salesperson I worked with was the most laid back salesman I’ve ever interacted with. Generally speaking, there’s probably a fear amongst dealers that if they don’t immediately engage with their users once they hit their site, it’s going to be a lost opportunity.

      I think this is a good example of putting their needs before their users. As you and I know, focusing on your own needs above your users usually doesn’t create great results.

  • Rob deFreese

    Great article Robert. It seems to me car dealers have been slow to realize that buyers are conducting tons of research independently, before they even contact a dealership.

    A visitor to the dealer’s website most likely is still researching. Dealers can make the user experience much better when they recognize that and make it as easy as possible for the visitor to conduct his research.

    In this spirit, a dealer who positions as the “trusted advisor” for the brands and area they serve by providing educational content combined with lead capture techniques would develop a strong position in their local market.

    • Robert Berris

      Hey Rob,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Also, killer name.

      Largely, I agree with you. I think what’s challenging is that for the consumer and dealer, dealership websites are (perceptually and literally) the bottom of the sales funnel. Dealers rely on consumers to have done their research well-before they arrive. And consumers don’t expect dealer sites to be anything more than noisy image galleries full of offers and inventory.

      My gut would say both consumers and dealers have the exact same expectations of these websites, but that’s where I think you and I both see an opportunity to provide more value. And whether that’s pulling in some of the OEM’s content, social reviews or even dealership-original content, if you have a captive audience on your site trying to make their final decision, you should absolutely test what would help with that tipping point.

      Strategically, I think the toughest piece for dealers to figure out is where to spend their budget and time. Do they invest in original content, repurposing content, no content or just heavy up on their media spend to drive even more users their way in hopes of driving more conversions (simply by playing the numbers game)?

      Ultimately, I’m a proponent of testing and learning incrementally until you find that sweet spot. I also agree that if a local dealership could build more brand loyalty and trust through great content (assuming that’s what their consumers want) they could create far more equity than ever before at a local level.