According to legend, a reporter once asked notorious bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. The alleged response, which Sutton himself later denied, was: “Because that’s where the money is.” Whether he actually said it is not important. The answer makes so much sense that it has become the foundation for Sutton’s Law in medical school and the Willie Sutton Rule in management accounting. There isn’t a Sutton’s Law for automotive advertising yet, but perhaps there ought to be. If there were, it would advise dealers, manufacturers and regional dealer associations to spend more of their ad budgets where the most active car shoppers are: in-market shopping sites.

Advertise Where the Buyers Are

A 2007 BIGresearch study found that approximately 12 percent of the U.S. adult population plans to purchase a vehicle within the next six months. If you advertise using traditional mass media (e.g., print and broadcast), your message has meaning to only a handful of the people you want to reach. By contrast, a recent study by Nielsen//NetRatings shows that, at any given time, nearly 80 percent of Cars.com shoppers plan to purchase a vehicle in that same timeframe.

With those numbers in mind, you may think that advertising budgets favor in-market sites. While the amount of dollars automakers spent online has risen annually between 30 percent and 100 percent during the past several years, the investment continues to fall short of the opportunities. Those expenditures, said Andy Jacobson, director of national sales at Cars.com, account for only 8 percent to 10 percent of manufacturers’ total budgets.

“The manufacturers lag behind consumer involvement with the internet,” he says. “There are several reasons for it – organizational inertia, legacy programs, playing to what they think the dealers want, a lack of understanding or incentive to change within their advertising agencies, a desire to play it safe, etc. Whatever the reason, the overall strategy seems out of sync with the marketplace.”

You can do more than watch and wait for vehicle manufacturers to catch up. In fact, there are steps you can take to ensure manufacturer and regional association investments provide the desired return and that your own spending builds on their programs.

Advertise, Advertise, Repeat

One of the core principles of advertising is repetition. The more your target audience sees the same message, the more likely it is to sink in. Using the assets automakers already make available allows you to capitalize on this principle, Jacobson says.

“Most manufacturers have a library of pictures, videos, banner ads and other creative resources that dealers can tap into at any time,” he says. “Yet much of it goes unused. If your manufacturer has a special offer such as gasoline discounts or employee pricing, use it as part of your own advertising efforts. The more places these incentives appear, the more they’re reinforced in car buyers’ minds.”

Act Nationally, Sell Locally

Let’s take a look at specific ways that collaborating with your manufacturer can help drive traffic and boost sales at your store:

  • Showcase Your New-Car Listings. Encouraging your manufacturer to promote currently available new-car inventory on in-market sites creates a scenario in which a rising tide can lift all ships. By advertising all the vehicles you have available, you increase the amount of time car buyers spend on your site and the likelihood they’ll buy from you. If you show only certified pre-owned and used cars but not new vehicles, you put yourself at a serious disadvantage. Shoppers in the market for a new vehicle will bypass your store.

    Giving prospects that choice is more important than you might think. Although you may believe that online shoppers already have made up their mind about the vehicle they plan to purchase, surveys show they’re still shopping. A recent study found that 54 percent of Cars.com visitors are undecided as to whether they want a new, used or certified use vehicle – much less a specific make and model.

    Shoppers want options, especially in the early stages of their shopping process. Inventory feeds give them those options, making the site far more valuable.

  • Take Advantage of Certified Used-Vehicle Programs. Certified used marketing programs are some of the most mature online programs in the industry. They provide the perfect mix of manufacturer support and direct benefit to you, making them a model to follow for all types of vehicles.

    “The manufacturer is paying for extra consumer functionality and visibility, resulting in more leads and faster closing times,” Jacobson says.

    When manufacturers advertise your certified inventory on shopping sites such as Cars.com, he notes that dealers who also advertise there see their email and phone leads increase an average of 24 percent.

  • Cash In on Co-op Programs. Ask most dealers about their use of co-op funds and they’ll probably tell you that they’re doing a good job with it. But Joanna Miller, Cars.com co-op advertising manager, has a different perspective.

    “Approximately 50 percent of available co-op funds go unused,” she says. “Either dealers don’t follow the rules, or they’re not aware that they can use the funds for online advertising, so they never put in the claims.”

    In the past, co-op for online advertising was often limited to banner ads, and the rules surrounding them often made it difficult to get reimbursed. However, while the reporting rules remain strict, Miller says that manufacturers are recognizing the value of dealer listings – both to the dealers themselves and their brands. As a result, they’re making their co-op funds more readily available..

    “Dealers we work with are often shocked at how much money they have in their co-op accounts,” she says. “Some are giving up between $70,000 and $80,000 at year-end. They think they’ve spent it all on newspaper and/or TV ads, but they really haven’t. That kind of money can go a long way, especially with the online advertising packages being offered these days. And it can have a huge payback too.”

    Meanwhile, some dealers understand they have money available but choose not to utilize it online because they perceive the procedures to be a hassle. Miller says Cars.com will soon offer a service that manages the program requirements and sends the required information to the manufacturer’s auditing firm. Leveraging this service will simplify the process and help you more quickly receive full reimbursement.

Join Forces With Your Regional Association

Print advertising and radio/TV commercials by regional dealer associations build your brand and increase store awareness, but they typically do little to drive sales. While it’s good to have these ads to generate interest, you’re often better served by directing these dollars online. Remember that shoppers are not just looking for any vehicle. They want a vehicle with particular features, in a particular color and within a particular price range. In-market sites are best equipped to help car buyers match their needs with available inventory, so encourage your regional association to explore online advertising options.

If It’s Good Enough for Willie Sutton …

In business, the easiest thing to do is what you’ve always done. Given the ever-changing nature of the marketplace, though, this approach may not be the smart thing to do. “Sutton’s New Law” reminds you to put your efforts where the shoppers really are – not where they were. Make sure your marketing program – and those of your manufacturers and regional associations – give you the maximum return on investment. It’s your best bet for leveraging the power of the brand across the board.