With all that a quality marketing program entails – advertising, social media, public relations and more – doing it right is a big commitment.
Tire dealers large and small must choose the best strategy to make sure all bases are covered. As we discovered when speaking with dealers for this article, sometimes the answer isn’t as simple as handling everything in-house versus hiring an outside agency. Often, a combination of the two or another unique scenario best meets a dealer’s needs.
The Agency Route
While it’s rare for a dealer to hire an advertising agency or outside consultant for 100% of all marketing initiatives – after all, that may be a bit cost prohibitive – many choose to outsource certain categories or tasks.
For example, Hay Tire Pros, with two South Carolina locations, employs an outside agency for larger projects like television advertising, uses help from the Tire Pros marketing team for events, and handles public relations and social media in-house, according to Deborah Anderson, office manager.
Anderson, who is responsible for in-house marketing tasks, in addition to accounting and human resources duties, adds that Hay Tire opts to tackle PR and social media internally because it allows for fairly quick response time and unique content with local flavor.
“Keeping social media in-house allows us to establish a voice and image that we control,” she says. “It is also cost-effective and efficient since we don’t have to relay information to a third party to be published.”
Though Anderson keeps up-to-date on marketing matters through webinars, talking with others in similar jobs, and reaching out to people who fall into Hay Tire’s target audience, she explains that in some instances, outside expertise is unmatched.
“We started using the ad agency for TV and radio many years ago, before we joined the Tire Pros network; the agency knows our owners, business and market well,” she says. “Tire Pros marketing personnel are valuable to us because they know what other dealers are doing, especially in similar markets. They are usually aware of the ‘latest and greatest’ trends out there, so they are a great resource. By depending on them to interact with vendors (online scheduling, direct mail, etc.) we save ourselves some time and effort.”
According to John Taylor, president of JTMarCom, a Nashville-based marketing agency that specializes in the tire industry, a good marketing agency should operate on the leading edge of the latest trends and technologies, which is sometimes difficult for in-house staff that wear many hats.
“An agency can also provide an objective assessment of the dealer’s current marketing programs and make recommendations that maybe the internal staff hadn’t thought about,” he adds.
When comparing agencies, dealers should first assess their marketing priorities and research agencies that have a proven track record in those areas, Taylor notes.
“A lot of smaller to mid-size agencies say they do it all, but they really specialize in certain areas,” he explains. “Match their top expertise with your needs; then ask for references and case studies from the agency. Creativity and expertise are important, but also find out from their current customers if they meet deadlines and budget parameters.”
The areas in which tire dealerships most often are in need of help include SEO and website development, according to Taylor, who adds, “Social media seems pretty straightforward, but doing it strategically in a manner that supports your business goals often warrants outside help. Larger dealers can pay an agency to be their social media arm, while smaller dealers can hire an agency to analyze their objectives, help them get set up, train their internal staff and then serve on a consulting basis to keep everything on track.”
Other tips for smaller dealerships – or smaller budgets – include considering consultants, rather than full-fledged agencies. These individuals have significant agency experience but typically charge much less because they have less overhead, Taylor notes.
“College students and interns can play a limited role, but it is critical that they have strong direction and oversight from an internal staff member,” he advises. “They may know their way around Facebook and Twitter, but they typically don’t have much real world business experience – not yet anyway.”
Dedicated Marketing Staff
While Atlantic Tire & Service does use an agency for a few larger, more involved programs – like the Cary, N.C., tire dealership’s tie-in with North Carolina State football – the majority of marketing initiatives are handled in-house by a dedicated staff member.
“We’ve had a marketing person on staff from day one,” says owner Anthony Blackman. “As we grew, we had to expand to outside sources.
“If we need something done quickly – like within a week or two – it’s easiest to go in-house because there can be an immediate response,” he adds.
“There’s a little bit of lag time when we go to S&A Communications (the dealership’s agency). We have the best of both worlds: if I need something immediately, it’s right here for me; if it’s a larger project that we have time to work on, we use the agency.”
The expertise and business knowledge of an in-house marketer is valuable in many instances, according to Blackman. One particular example for Atlantic Tire is the interaction with local schools, which he refers to as market segmentation.
“We have a network of schools around us and we often want to have marketing done specifically for them; this can be handled very quickly in-house.”
Lauren Block, Atlantic Tire’s marketing and business development assistant, is a graduate of N.C. State and makes the most of her ties with the university, Blackman says, noting, “She keeps in touch with N.C. State and anything they have coming up that would benefit us, she makes sure she’s involved with that.”
This includes meeting with students and instructors to discuss the shop’s marketing needs. For several years, Atlantic Tire had struggled to successfully reach parents at local elementary and high schools.
Upon the suggestion of an N.C. State marketing professor, Block tried a different approach, hosting an informative breakfast meeting where members of the schools’ PTAs could come for complimentary food, ask questions about anything in Atlantic Tire’s wheelhouse, and learn about the business in the process.
“It’s very hard to get into these schools and be effective; we had to come up with a different way,” Blackman says. “The parents were very receptive; they saw a young lady there who was willing to talk to them about their needs. This was after we’d tried several years to reach the school PTA members. We now have a tremendous relationship with schools.”
As with any staff member, Atlantic Tire makes any and all training available to its marketing personnel.
“We give our staff a lot of flexibility in choosing training that would help them perform their jobs better,” Blackman says. “This industry is changing so rapidly that if you’re not constantly training, you’re falling behind. We place a big emphasis – whether it’s a tire changer or our marketing person – on training for the constantly evolving skills needed.”
As the ultimate combination of using both in-house and outside resources, Fynn’s Tire & Auto Service, with 27 retail, wholesale and commercial locations throughout western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, created its own in-house marketing agency several years ago. Dublin Advertising, which is run by director of marketing and advertising Terry Polonsky and his assistant, Brett Miller, is 100% dedicated to its three clients: Flynn’s Tire & Auto Service, Flynn’s Wholesale Tire, and Flynn’s Commercial Tire.
Polonsky formerly worked as a marketer for a large, local retailer, co-owner and president Joe Flynn says. When that company was purchased and its advertising department was being moved to Texas, Polonsky opted to stay put.
“He didn’t want to move his family, so we were fortunate enough to pick up someone who had a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge,” Flynn recalls. “If it weren’t for him, we may be using an outside agency, but we got the right guy – we have an expert in-house.”
Dublin Advertising handles every facet of Flynn Tire’s marketing, including its website, signage, sales, on hold messages, electronic sign boards, truck decals, radio and TV ads, mailers, Flynnie mascot, traveling promotional truck and merchandise. One example in which Polonsky excels above an outsider is maximizing Flynn Tire’s use of co-op programs from manufacturers.
“Terry has worked with these guys so long that he knows exactly how those co-ops work,” Flynn says. “Every manufacturer has different parameters for co-op programs and he knows how to utilize them to get the best bang for our buck on advertising.”
Flynn Tire’s website and social media channels also benefit from having marketers on staff, Flynn adds.
“We’ve done a good job with our website just because we can change it every day on the fly based on customer feedback,” he explains. “With social media, we can be more reactive. We’re not hiring someone to respond for us; a Flynn’s Tire associate responds to every customer with a heartfelt response.”
Polonsky himself agrees that having an in-house marketer can save a dealership a significant amount of time and money.
“I’ve worked for agencies in the past; it’s an hourly billing for the most part,” he explains. “The in-house department is much more efficient from the standpoint of ideas, testing the waters, small tasks, etc. Those all require billable time from an agency, and that can add up significantly. Even with major promotions, there are a lot of changes and revisions, and that’s what could kill you from a billing standpoint.”
If a shop is comparing agencies, Polonsky recommends looking for those that have specific knowledge of the tire and automotive service industry, as well as an understanding of co-op programs. For dealerships seeking to handle marketing on their own, he says, often a specific media outlet can act as an agency.
“For example, a radio station will work with you to make your media buy work for you,” Polonsky explains. “They’ll give you the best bang for your buck and provide reporting on the results, when they can.”
If you’re in the process of re-examining your current setup, the best place to begin is by deciding what tasks can be handled in-house and which need a little more outside expertise.