By Mike Imlay
Online Tool-Building for Your Business
In many ways, developing a strong web presence has become a whole lot simpler. In other ways, it can be more confusing than ever.
“With all the technology out there, websites are just easier to build now than they used to be,” said Bill Lundberg, product manager, automotive industry, for ARI (formerly 50 Below). “Local website designers have become abundant. Many designers still focus on the desktop version. Great website presence, however, relies on helping your customers on all types of devices and using the best tools for the job.”
Headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ARI provides website design and development, as well as software and data solutions, for tire and wheel dealers and automotive service providers.
Overall, the basics of a strong web presence remain much the same as they have for years. A company’s main website must still include good content—principally the top products and services that make the business money. Of course, the website also needs to be built and optimized with search engines in mind. And solid, professional-looking company branding continues to be key, Lundberg said.
Nevertheless, web trends are rapidly advancing, making it more important than ever to keep up with the times.
“How websites are built changes as new technologies become available,” Lundberg emphasized. “I don’t want to discount the desktop website—it’s still very important—but it’s no longer the sun that all the other smaller planets circle around. With the changing market, mobile and social media have become big players. No longer can a company develop websites without taking each of these things into account.”
The good news is there are plenty of web suppliers ready to assist aftermarket businesses of every size and type in tailoring a web presence that’s right for them. And the best of them are on the cutting edge of the latest trends that every specialty-equipment enterprise should be aware of.
All About Data
Perhaps more than anything else, the explosion of data and its management has become a driving force in today’s web-development circles, noted Luanne Brown, founder and president of eTool Developers. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her company provides web-design solutions ranging from e-commerce components to product information and vehicle application databases to some of the industry’s best-known manufacturers, retailers and dealers.
“Nowadays it’s less about pop and more about data,” said Brown.
“That’s certainly the case with automotive aftermarket companies. They, of course, need the wow and pop, too, but it all starts with the data—especially if you’re trying to do e-commerce on the site. Obviously, if you’re going to set up a shopping cart and sell your parts online, you have to have all your data organized, and today that means ACES and PIES.”
For too long, said Brown, aftermarket companies hoarding their data had hurt the industry as a whole.
“We sold parts but didn’t share data,” she said.
“It’s no wonder we’re 15 to 20 years behind other industries. You think about banks that were able to cooperate and create ATMs and the travel industry collaborating and creating sites where we can rent hotel rooms and book flights. It’s just recently that our industry has begun to do that.” Brown referenced data-sharing initiatives, such as the SEMA Data Co-op as an example.
A good web supplier will offer software and application solutions that will allow even smaller companies to take advantage of the industry’s new stream of data and gain a higher profile on the web to compete for customers. But the trend is not without a few pitfalls.
“Data standardization is a blessing and a curse,” noted Brendan Hanson, partner and CEO of PartsLogix, a web-design firm serving the aftermarket from Moorpark, California. “It’s been a blessing in the fact that it’s easier to interchange and exchange data. It’s a curse in the fact that if I’m able to get some data from Brand XYZ that I sell, and I just put it on my website, there are likely a hundred other websites that have the exact same data. In terms of building a new website and putting it online, a lot of focus has to be put into making that data unique to your website. Otherwise, it’s just going to be lost among thousands of others.”
Whether it’s extra text, charts or graphs, adding something fresh and different can help make a manufacturer’s or retailer’s site and products stand out from the pack.
“We have a couple clients who take a part out, do a video on it and tell the customer about it,” Hanson said. “The fact that they’re taking the time to put together a short, one- or two-minute video for a specific product really enhances the customer experience.”
Moreover, web experts said that an even bigger pitfall for smaller businesses is thinking that they can run wild with data on their sites to compete with huge retailers, such as Summit or Amazon.
“I frequently get calls from people saying that they want to get into the automotive aftermarket and sell all the lines of racing parts,” said Brown. “My first question is, well, where are you going to get your data? They have no clue what they’re getting into. I have to do a lot of educating.”
Brit Mansell, owner and president of Octane Media, based in Alabaster, Alabama, and specializing in e-commercial web design for the motorsports industry, agreed with that assessment.
“For the mom-and-pop guy to compete against a department of data monkeys is awfully tough,” he said. “To succeed, a business must build a site consistent with its size and business model.”
Mansell advised against overloading a site with data that detracts from its most important content.
“We’re getting suppliers who hand over data files with 30,000 SKUs, and clients want these on their website,” he said. “But a lot of that data isn’t applicable to their audience in the first place. Be very clear what your mission is on your website.” He pointed out that a good web supplier will provide the data tools and management services appropriate to a particular business.
Ironically, while websites are becoming more data-rich, they are also exhibiting cleaner designs.
“As far as websites go, code has gotten a lot more efficient,” Mansell observed. “No longer do [businesses] need to actually edit the HTML of all their pages. There are tools built into the content-management systems that make it a lot easier and a lot more manageable for smaller shops. If they can update and post on Facebook, they have all the skills that are necessary to manage their websites themselves. They don’t necessarily need to go out and hire someone fulltime for data manipulation unless they’re a huge shop with a ton of product.”
Of course, the flood of tablets and mobile devices has also led to the more simplified appearance of websites as well.
“Things have gotten more stripped down,” said Hanson. “You kind of see that floating to the web with a more open, user-friendly look. There was a while where it seemed that people would cram as much as they could onto a page and hope users were able to find their way. Now I think sites are becoming a lot easier to navigate, a lot more readable.”
Nonetheless, skilled web suppliers know that a certain “wow factor” is still required when it comes to the automotive specialty-equipment market.
“I would like to caution everybody on this, because we’ve seen some very clean designs released fairly recently that were not received very well,” Mansell said. “At the end of the day in this industry, your site still has to be cool to sell your product. Smartphones get better every day, so the fact that we’re somehow dumbing down these sites is a little bit wrong. Clearly, the strategy today would be to get a responsive-type layout that gives you control over what you want to pull out and what you want to keep in there. It used to be that we would build mobile websites and strip them down to almost nothing. It would be a very bland experience. But now, with a responsive site, you can manage to keep in as much ‘cool’ as you feel necessary to sell your product.”
Today’s top aftermarket web suppliers also realize that their clients need to be on the leading edge of social media.
“It’s just become one of those other channels dealers have to work with,” Lundberg noted. “Knowing this at ARI, we recently acquired a leading digital marketing company that brought in about nine talented individuals. They have proven experience in search-engine optimization, search-engine marketing, reputation management and social media services. It further promotes the dealer’s presence online.”
“In the web world today, it’s all about integrated marketing,” agreed Brown. “You have to have social media in place with Facebook, Twitter and all the social networking that’s driving traffic into a site.”
In other words, she said, a business building a website today also has to know all the other online places where customers are hanging out and then engage them there in constructive ways. Moreover, a business has to recognize that social media is not an end in itself but rather part of an overall marketing mix that refers customers to a main website and other traditional customer service contact points.
“Sometimes a manufacturer will put up a blog or Facebook page that ends up being a place where people go to complain,” Brown said. “What that tells me is they don’t have anyplace else to go. You haven’t given them a way to have a good customer service relationship with you.”
Hanson added that in using social media, businesses have to tie it in to an overall picture that makes it about the customer.
“It’s not just about putting something online and hoping your site has the look and the feel the customer wants,” he said. “You have to engage customers constantly, whether it be through e-mail blasts or social media, because if you’re not doing it, there’s somebody else out there who will. If you take the time to engage customers and show them that you’re not just a company but someone who interacts with them and reacts to what they might post to your social media, that’s how to build a customer base.”
In addition to an appropriate presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram, such customer interaction will likely include either a blog or a frequently updated news section at a business’s main company site.
“Obviously, you’re going to compete in the search engines, so I think the most important thing is getting all of your content—whether it be news posts, product data or photos—really well organized,” Mansell advised. “You also need to come up with some type of frequent information that you can post, whether it be company news, race results or anything like that. Google favors sites that refresh their content often, so if your products themselves don’t change, then you need something on your site that gives Google something new to look at on a fairly frequent basis.”
Working With Suppliers
Thankfully, there are now web suppliers offering the right array of design and support services at appropriate rates for every conceivable business model.
Take the local speed shop, said Brown: “They go to their local tracks on the weekend and take trailers of parts with them. But they’re really small. They just want a website that validates them. They don’t need a $50,000 site. They just need something that says who they are, where their shop is, who their race teams are and what parts they sell.”
The main thing is knowing your business’s needs and seeking a supplier that caters specifically to them.
“Clients are a lot smarter now,” Mansell said. “It used to be that we would have to tell a client what they needed to run their business when we started designing a website. Now, with a lot of the tools that are available, there is a ton of research they can do on their own to come to that conversation with a little bit of background already in their pocket.”
Lundberg suggested looking into a number of factors before settling on a specific web developer.
“One important question is how long a company has been developing websites,” he explained. “If they’ve been around for a while, they know what works and what doesn’t. That’s a big piece of it. Make sure to ask what type of design options are out there.”
He added that the client needs to ask about the service model. For instance, is somebody assigned to the account to call and see how things are going or provide feedback and updates?
“If the person I’m supposed to get a hold of for questions isn’t there, is there somebody that’s there to back them up?” he asked. “Am I able to make my own changes to my website? If for some reason I need to go in to make a quick change, do I have to rely on the website company to make that change or can I do it? Along with that, does the web designer offer training or documentation to make those changes?”
ARI Network Services
If you’re creating a manufacturer’s portal or retail site drawing from preloaded catalogs or data, you’ll especially want to know what manufacturers or data-management programs your potential web developer works with. With an estimated one out of three consumers accessing mobile versions of websites, you’ll also want to ask suppliers what they can do for you in that realm. Lundberg further recommended asking about website reporting, making sure that Google Analytics will be tied into your site or that the platform itself can deliver relevant statistics about traffic and users. If you’re a retailer or dealer connecting with manufacturers, you’ll also want to know how the supplier might be able to set your site up to seamlessly handle promotions.
“OEM promotions are pretty important,” Lundberg explained. “If I’ve got Michelin, Bridgestone or Goodyear and one of them offers promotions to the dealer, do I have to get them, or will my website company provide them?”
PartsLogix’s Hanson reminds clients to also ask about how a supplier will handle a relaunch or update of an existing web presence.
“There can be a whole gamut of things when a site is launched that need to be considered,” he explained. “For example, if you have an established site and are putting up a new one, are you taking the time to redirect all of your old pages to your new site? Are your old URLs losing traffic for you? Are they going to 404 [‘not found’ error] pages? Most of the time when you do a new website, your site structure and page layout change a bit. I saw a friend of mine lose tons and tons of traffic that way.”
Finally, you’ll want to know how involved your potential supplier is in both the specialty-equipment industry as well as their own. Do they attend trade shows? Are they truly involved in the market? Conversely, be prepared for a good supplier to interview you about your business and web needs as well.
“We generally like to start out with a bunch of questions,” Mansell said. “We’ll ask things such as whether [clients] keep inventory on site, whether they’re going to drop ship all of their sales, what mix will be drop shipped versus inventory, whether they want to process credit cards online and if they want to connect directly to their shipping carrier. There are a lot of technical questions as to how an actual transaction is carried out on the website. That’s what we like to get out of the way first, just because it drives a lot of the costs and time and also the effort on their side getting their accounts accessible to websites.”
Ultimately, said Brown, it’s about being aware of online trends, embracing a new way of looking at web development and viewing web suppliers in a whole new light.
“We’re building more than hot, cool websites,” she concluded. “We’re building tools now that connect manufacturers and dealers to their customers.”