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We’ve been tracking the transition of automotive marketing to digital for ten years or more, but have just recently seen major pickup at local dealers. There has been a definite lag at the dealer level compared to the car manufacturers.

Most local dealer efforts have relied on third party subscriptions with, and others to successfully showcase inventory, along with search packages with Google and other search providers. But many dealers still rely heavily on traditional media to acquire new customers.

ReachLocal, which has made a concerted effort to target key verticals with its integrated marketing efforts, including health care, legal and pro services. It clearly sees a rich opportunity among dealers, which are among the heaviest local advertisers.

A 1 1/2 year pilot with 52 northern California Scion dealers has scored especially well. The Scion effort, highlighted in a ReachLocal corporate case study, especially made sense since Toyota’s entry-level brand is skewed towards online- savvy younger shoppers.

ReachLocal Director of Automotive Scott Lucas and Scion Brand Manager Mary Pham, in a recent discussion with BIA/Kelsey, told us that that the Reach campaign for Scion allowed the individual Scion dealers to get on a level playing field with Toyota, which supports its branded dealers with massive national advertising campaigns.

The effort focused on lead generation and display, and went far beyond a typical search campaign. Site targeting, search retargeting, couponing, test drive scheduling and other activities related to search were all incorporated into the campaign. “Through that coverage, we’ve created more leaders and dealer analytics,” said Lucas. All of it complemented national and regional messages that Scion has been promoting.

Scion, for its part, has deemed the pilot a success and is now expanding digital spending at both the dealer level and for regional coops. The Northen California dealers are now spending 80 percent of their marketing on digital, said Pham — a tremendous vote of confidence in digital. Digital spending by the Scion dealers had been at about 10 percent prior to the testing period. Nationwide, digital gets about 8.4 percent of media spending on autos, according to our soon-to-be-released Local Advertising Dashboard. (That figure includes manufacturer spending , which is heavily oriented towards televison.)

Pham noted that Scion, via Toyota’s digital consultants, knew it wanted to develop a major digital effort, and had also looked at Haystak before settling on Reach’s program (this was prior to Haystak’s acquisition by AutoTrader in May 2013.) The results are now in. “We’ve seen an increase in car sales,” said Pham. Perhaps more critically, “we’ve seen a shift in the way the dealers are thinking.”

This is the first in a series of posts where we’ll be highlighting successes in National Local, which is the theme of our “Leading in Local: The National Impact” event in Atlanta May 7-9. Register now for early rates.

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