A.J. Maida has been the director of digital marketing for Papa’s Chrysler Dodge Jeep in New Britain, CT, since the summer of 2008. After 14 years at another Dodge dealership that has since gone out of business, Maida started a flower delivery service that he kept for 12 years before selling it. Maida says that he never took ups at that store because of his repeat business.
He got back into the business after jumping into a conversation about cars with strangers at a restaurant. The strangers happened to be Dealer Mickey Augeri and his son.
“I was supposed to be taking time off,” Maida says. “But I was at dinner and heard this conversation going on about cars at the next table. You know how it is when cars are in your blood, so I jumped in. I thought the conversation was over, but three days later, I’m back in the car business.”
After working with Augeri (who has since passed away), Maida ended up at Papa’s. Constantly reading and learning about the business, Maida has become one of those Internet guys who is a leader in the business whose perspective is a step or two ahead.
He has an interesting perspective on how business will rely more on social media and how web sites will devolve and no longer be what drives our Internet efforts.
A.J., you were in this business long before the Internet existed. How did you make the switch to becoming digitally focused?
I started checking out web sites like ADM and others. I found this magazine that focuses on the digital side (Editor’s note – A.J. is talking about Digital Dealer magazine) and tried to learn as much as I could.
Another thing I did was to put money out of my own pocket to attend the 4th Digital Dealer conference, and I’ve attended ever since.
I also check out forums and blogs of other industries where the businesses might have bigger budgets than the typical dealer has. As a result, they might a little bit ahead of us with technology. These are guys who three years ago were talking about mobile or video. Hopefully, by reading them, I can become more of a leader than a follower. I want my competition – which is great – to be following me instead of me following them.
Actually, one of the wonderful things I’ve found about this industry is how willing people are to help each other learn – as long as you’re not in a dealership down the street.
What advice would you give someone starting out in this business?
The advice I give newbies is to learn to say, “No.” If you don’t say no, you’ll end up not being able to do your job.
Think about it. Today, the Internet is a lot more than just putting up pictures on web site or responding to leads. There’s reputation management or being able to write content that Google will find, for example.
This isn’t just a full time job. It’s a job you have to work at full time. There are a lot of smart people in this industry and you have to work hard to stay ahead.
You have a lot of tough competition in the Northeast.
Tell me about it. There are nine – count them – nine Chrysler Dodge Jeep stores in a 35-mile radius. So our search efforts are very important to us. That’s one reason I hired PCG Marketing and Brian Pasch to help us with our SEM. We’ve been able to increase our traffic a lot with them.
Now, I have to work on converting that traffic. We’re switching from a full Chrysler Dealer.com site to one that is a Dealer.com retail site.
Tell us about some of the things you did when you took over Papa’s digital marketing efforts?
First, I blew up the flash-based web site we had.
Who was the vendor?
Let’s just say it was a flash-based web site. I moved us over to Dealer.com – I’m a huge Dealer.com loyalist. It is a huge reason why I’ve gotten to where I am today. Roger Hamilton was my account manager at another store. He now runs product for the company. Roger was patient with me and coached me as I learned. We now have a wonderful friendship.
Walk us through some of your web site strategy.
People come to our site for five reasons. They want to buy a car; get approved for finance; schedule service; buy parts or check warranty information. So we’ve designed our site to drive that. We have to have all that information “above the fold,” so to speak. We want that information to be readily available so the consumer can click on it easily and be converted.
It’s not about traffic. It’s about conversion. I can have all the traffic in the world, but if it’s not converting, I’m not doing my job.
How do you define conversion?
For me, conversion is anybody who makes contact with the dealership and gives us an opportunity to turn them into a customer – of any of our departments. They might not become a customer right away, but if we answer their questions and they either come back to us later or talk about the experience on social media, I consider that conversion.
What else did you do?
I got us onto social media, primarily Facebook. I also began focusing our efforts on parts and service, using the Internet to market those areas.
I revamped our pay-per-click strategy and started matching ads to search terms. As I mentioned earlier, I hired Brian Pasch to help us with our SEO. I also started building microsites to create link building for our web site.
We might not be in the top position on Google, but we are there in multiple positions.
What convinced you to go the microsite route?
Again, it’s an effort to get more conversion. Instead of someone coming to an index page or page listing our inventory, I can take them directly to a page about that specific vehicle they are interested in. And, instead of them being exposed only to the eight or 12 I might have in stock, I can tell them we have access to 1,000, which we do. From there, we can take them to our inventory page.
Microsites gives us a chance to give a customer more of our message.
How many microsites do you have?
When it’s all said and done, we’ll have hundreds. You know, I don’t need to have a life.
How long does it take you to build a microsite?
About 45 minutes to set up a page. I’m looking for a vendor to help with that, but I think I’m going with MicrositesByU, Larry Bruce’s company.
What’s your process for choosing a vendor?
Well, it’s not easy. There are thousands of vendors and they will all tell you they have a great product. But there isn’t one magic bullet.
Add to that, things are constantly changing. Just look at the changes Google made to its Google Places a couple of weeks ago.
You have to be diligent and do your research and interviews. I do take a while before signing a contract. I don’t think I have picked a vendor in less than three months since I’ve come to Papa’s.
Once I choose one, I’ll sign an initial 90-day contract to let us get a feel of whether it was a good choice. Then we’ll go month-to-month once the initial 90 days are up. Sometimes, I’ll get my nose bloody because I don’t know what I’m doing. But if I’m not getting my nose bloody, I’m not trying to get better.
You have an interesting take on social media and its future as it relates to business.
My opinion – and I hope I’m correct because it’s the direction we’re going in – is that in five to seven years, we won’t have web sites as know them today. And I’m sure my friends at Dealer.com don’t want to hear that.
It will be social media and OEM sites.
So you think it will be all about a dealership page on Facebook?
I think social media – whether it’s Facebook or something else that comes along – will be where we get the majority of our customers. We won’t be talking about search on Google or linking anymore.
This is an interesting discussion.
We’ll have microsites and inventory listing pages but a full-scale site like we have today? I don’t think we’ll have those.
Your video will be on YouTube, pictures on Flickr, and inventory somewhere else. And everything will come through a social media hub. The problem for us is that dealers or most businesses can’t drop what they’re doing now to move 100% in that direction and still make money.
I’m not sure the technology is ready yet to support moving 100% in that direction yet. You’re talking about the cloud-computing concept and those initiatives are still in their infancy.
You’re right. My stepson just came back from a conference and he says, “The cloud isn’t cloudy enough yet – there’s still too much sun peeking through those clouds.”
But in five to seven years? Consider this – what we’re working with is only 14 years old and look at the changes we’ve seen already.
One thing I’m doing is moving from a full scale Chrysler mandated Dealer.com site to more of a Dealer.com retail site. Think about what the most visited sites are today – Google, Craigslist, and the Drudge Report. They also are the simplest and ugliest.
People want simple. They are on the Internet to find the information they want.
They might like simple, but how do you convey everything your dealership has?
I have to be careful because I do get caught up in wanting to show off everything we have. Papa’s is one of the most unique dealerships around. We have a 55-car showroom; indoor movie theater; museum with 20-or-so classic cars; a full size diner and a barbershop.
That’s all well and good, but that’s not why people come to the site. They come to buy cars, get approved, schedule service, buy parts or find out about their warranty.
What’s your biggest challenge?
I think this is true in any organization – we all have that “We’ve not done it that way before.”
We also all want bigger budgets to get everything we want. The reality is, to move forward, we often have to spend more money at the forefront so we can make more later. But really, half the time we’re guessing who the right vendor is or what the right direction is. It’s a young industry that’s rapidly changing. What’s right today may not be right tomorrow.
Staffing also is an issue. Internet no longer is a three or four person job. There’s multiple skill sets necessary to be effective.
I’m lucky I work for a family that gets it. They know my job is to market cars, service and parts. And the sales manager’s job is to manage the salespeople.
The dealership has a long history.
It started as a gas station in 1947. Dominic and Eugene Papa bought a permit for $6 to build it. We still own the original location. We have a replica of the gas station at the dealership. Through the years, the Papa’s had different brands but eventually became the biggest Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership in New England.
The sons, Ken and Dom Papa run it now and have done a great job of building on the tradition. Five years ago, it moved into a 70,000 sq.-ft. facility that has acres of cars. We have a strong presence in the community and are focused on charitable giving.