BUSINESS BEST PRACTICES
Taking the Virtual Plunge
Despite the Challenges of Conducting Business During a Pandemic, LTA Manufacturing’s Marketing Efforts Thrived by Going Digital
By Chad Simon
In 2020, most companies were forced to drastically alter their person-to-person business approach due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Industry shows, including the SEMA Show, were cancelled and replaced by virtual events, such as SEMA360. Racing events were cancelled or postponed. More people were working from home than ever before. Business meetings were conducted via Zoom. Seminars made way for webinars.
And marketing campaigns went 100% digital.
One such instance is LTA Manufacturing—parent company to Ranch, ATC, Jason and LoadMaster Bed Systems—which staged a large marketing push last fall in preparation for the launch of its brand-new Mountain Top line. The company’s intent was to launch it at the 2020 SEMA Show, but because the Show was canceled due to the pandemic, LTA had to find another way to introduce the product line.
“I’ve always been a firm believer in digital marketing, so I already had a digital push built into my campaign process,” said Jennifer Collins, LTA Manufacturing vice president of marketing. “But I expanded on that in light of not being able to be one on one with people as the next best way for us to get the product out and let them see it.”
Adapting to the Challenge
Like most manufacturers in the automotive aftermarket, LTA Manufacturing’s sales slowed significantly when COVID-19 began, but have since recovered due to the company’s commitment to a three-week lead time when many competitors in the segment were pushing five, six and seven weeks.
LTA Manufacturing’s owner also made a conscious effort to support employees during the peak of the COVID-19 shutdown and paid them at one point to do community service because there wasn’t enough actual production to keep them busy.
“We didn’t have the rebuild that so many companies were having to go through after having let their staffs go,” Collins said. “The other thing we wanted to do was to make it easier for dealers to do business with us, so we rolled out a new dealer portal so dealers could process orders online.”
The dealer portal opened a new venue for the company in what had always been a person-to-person type of sale, allowing dealers to do customization on their own, since many of them weren’t working full-time because of COVID-19. By changing its marketing approach, LTA experienced one of the best years in the company’s history, despite the challenges.
Revolutionizing the Way Business Is Conducted
COVID-19 changed the way everybody does business. One of the things Collins sees is that people are doing more research online, especially during the discovery part of the buying process. They’re looking to influencers on social media for inspiration and education about products, whereas they’d have gone to a truck accessory dealer in the past and talked to the sales staff
“The pandemic pushed everybody to look beyond what have always been traditional forms of marketing and respond to that by getting information to consumers in a format they’re looking for,” Collins said. “We’ve embraced that by moving forward with various new digital platforms.”
Shortages in raw materials are one of the other challenges that affected not just the automotive industry but also many industries. For LTA, it’s glass. The RV industry has taken off because of COVID-19, and a lot of glass is used for windshields. Glass suppliers are behind because they’re trying to fill their orders. That forced Collins to look more closely at her supply chain and carry more inventory to help manage shortages.
Marketing in a Virtual World
Collins isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She’s been adapting her marketing strategy since she started with the company a little more than a year ago.
“I’ve worked with other companies that had a strong digital campaign and knew how important that was, so when I came on board with LTA, one of the first things I did was start looking at where we needed to improve,” she said. “It’s not an instantaneous process, which is why it’s taken me a year to rebuild our websites, create dealer portals and recreate an entire search-engine optimization (SEO) campaign. But that was not just because of COVID-19; it was because I knew that was the way we needed to go with marketing because it’s changing every day.”
For Collins, digital marketing is easier than traditional forms of marketing because she receives immediate results about what’s working and what isn’t.
“Twenty years ago, when all you had was print, you’d put an ad in the paper with a promo code and hope that somebody would use it when they called so you would have some way of tracking whether that ad did any good,” Collins said. “Now I can pull up Google Analytics and tell you how many people have gone to my website, how many people are responding, and how long they spent looking at the ad. I love what digital can do for me in terms of information.”
Digital marketing also provides for a better-informed consumer. At the SEMA Show, Collins finds that people are more engaged and better informed about what’s out there.
“I’ve been in the automotive aftermarket for more than 20 years, and I can remember working shows, and people would walk in and ask, ‘So what’s new here?’” Collins said. “Now they come to shows and they say, ‘Show me the new product that you’re promoting.’ They know exactly what they’re looking for, and they want to see it up close.”
LTA also pushed other strategies, including pay-per-click advertising, which was boosted by the company’s SEO and search-engine marketing (SEM) processes in the middle to late part of 2020 for all of its brands. According to Collins, the company saw a great rate of return on its pay-per-click advertising.
“The costs had gone down because so many people had stopped advertising, especially smaller businesses,” Collins said. “So we were able to take advantage of that, leading more people to our website.”
Collins contracted with a digital strategy firm that she’d worked with in the past, and it helped her take better advantage of SEO and SEM programs and use video as a way for people to view the product, since they couldn’t see it in person. Collins is also ramping up the company’s digital ads with many industry-related sites and working toward providing a 360-degree product view.
The Mountain Top launch helped Collins find ways to expand the company’s own digital presence across the board. That included putting together a dedicated social-media campaign for all of its brands. Each brand’s website is also being rebuilt to include more features, such as build-your-own and enhancements to the dealer lead-generation tool, which brings more traffic to dealers. The company’s SEO and SEM campaigns are bringing more viewers to its sites, which means dealers get more leads.
According to Collins, social-media marketing has never been a focus at LTA. She knew it was important to try to bring that aspect into it, but there were several pieces that had to come into place to make that happen. First, she needed quality content to build a social strategy, so she spent the past year doing photo and video shoots in the mountains and desert, trying to build a library of videos and imagery to draw consumers in.
The company is also working with its dealers who are interested in implementing an online strategy to sell to consumers. According to Collins, the fiberglass part of the industry is custom-build and built-to-order-type products, so they’re not easy to sell online, but some dealers are now doing it. She supports them with code that they can drop into their websites so they can use LTA’s build-your-own feature and provide them with imagery and videos.
According to Collins, digital will continue to flourish after COVID-19 subsides. It was already growing even prior to the pandemic and is especially increasing now with people spending more time in front of their computers and less time out in person. Everybody in all forms of the industry is going to have to learn to excel at providing a customized user experience for consumers.
“The best thing to do is educate yourself,” she said. “There are some great online resources. Do some research and start small. Don’t try to jump in headfirst and do everything all at once. Start with one thing. Social media is one of the quickest, easiest and least-expensive ways to get your foot in. I recommend to anybody who’s struggling to just try that; don’t try to tackle all marketing options at one time.”