Advertising: What Works, What Doesn’t?

A longtime shop owner shares his personal experiences and strategies for advertising solutions that work.

The advertising landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. As technology has evolved, a range of new tools has cropped up to help shop owners raise awareness about their services. Staying ahead of these emerging strategies can be a daunting task, especially while balancing the responsibilities of running a shop. But relying solely on antiquated advertising methods, such as Yellow Page directory ads, can be a costly mistake, especially considering that 90 percent of consumers use search engines to research local products and services, according to advertising research firm BIA/Kelsey.


Clearly, establishing advertising practices in this ever-changing arena can be challenging. After much trial and error, I’ve decided what works best is a mix of traditional and newer advertising vehicles, as well as consistent evaluation to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns. I’ve also learned that it’s best to choose an advertising channel based on the goals you want to achieve. For example, if your aim is to reach residents new to the neighborhood, then pay-per-click ads will probably yield a better result than a radio or television ad, which hit a larger, less geographically targeted group of consumers.

When it comes to advertising, my objectives are simple. I want to attract new customers and retain existing ones. Here’s a look at the advertising approaches that have helped me effectively reach those audiences.

Building a new customer base

Building a pipeline of new customers is a big priority for me. Not only is it essential for my existing shops that need to battle natural attrition, it’s crucial for the new shops I open every year. It may seem old-fashioned, but direct mail is one of the best tools I’ve used for reaching new customers. For starters, it’s much more targeted than many competing vehicles. I can target households by income, geographic area, even vehicle model and make. As a general rule, I tend to zero in on the middle- to upper-income households located within three miles of my stores.

Direct mail

I also like direct mail because unlike email, which can easily be deleted without being reviewed, a postcard is something tangible that I know consumers have to hold in their hands and examine. The key is grabbing their attention with an offer that stands out from the crowd. I like giving potential customers a reason to try my shops. Oil changes, alignment checks and other maintenance-type services are a safe bet because car owners need to get them done on a regular basis, and they are the types of services consumers typically feel safe allowing an unfamiliar technician to perform. I also provide specials that may come in handy for bigger repairs, such as free towing for customers who spend $200 at our stores. In addition to a compelling offer, I recommend including on the card a photo of you and your shop to familiarize new customers with your location and the people behind the business.

Topnotch website

A well-designed, user-friendly website is essential to attracting new customers. (And for tips on having an effective and attractive website, check out the February issue of AutoInc., which has the winners of the Top 10 websites contest, so you can learn from the pros.) As I mentioned before, when it comes to finding local goods and services, consumers are hitting the Internet first. Your website is often the first impression a potential customer will have of you and your shop, so make sure it’s informative and easy to navigate. On the first page, I suggest prominently displaying your phone number and hours. Featuring specials, benefits you provide, and a positive customer review is also a good way to distinguish yourself from the competition.

Unfortunately, an eye-catching site isn’t enough, particularly when it comes to capturing the attention of new viewers. You also need to ensure that your site is optimized so that it appears high in the rankings when Internet users perform a search on the services you provide. Most of us are experts in cars, not computers, so it’s best to let a firm that specializes in search engine optimization (SEO) handle this process. Check with your local Better Business Bureau and colleagues for referrals. To save time and the headaches associated with dealing with multiple vendors, I recommend working with one company that can manage your website, SEO and other online marketing efforts such as pay-per-click advertising. Pay-per-click is a good tool because it allows you to reach customers outside the range of your direct mail campaign inexpensively, and also provides the opportunity to target by vehicle.

Your vendor can also help you stay updated on Internet advertising trends. My shops are in the process of using “smart” sites that include customized pages for different makes and models. So if, for example, a potential customer searches for the terms “Audi A4 auto repair,” the results would include a page featuring coupons and services tailored to that particular vehicle. These customized sites could be the wave of the future, so keeping informed about these marketing advances is well worth your while.

Email marketing

Email marketing is also a useful vehicle for connecting with existing customers, giving us the opportunity to announce new benefits, such as extended hours or enhanced warranties, and reinforce our brand. Email can be helpful in promoting special offers to a customer database. Again, this strategy keeps my shops front of mind for customers and fuels referrals. Text messaging, however, is the next line of defense for us in communicating with existing customers. We’re finding that customers don’t like to receive advertisements via text message, but they do like getting appointment or service reminders. It’s always a balancing act, but employing email, direct mail and text messaging to maintain relationships with customers can make a big difference in customer retention.

Track your results

For shop owners, the really exciting news is that it’s easier than ever to evaluate the results generated by your advertising campaigns. Any piece of advertising I do, from a direct-mail piece to an Internet ad, includes a unique phone number. That way I can see which channels are generating leads and which offers are producing the most calls. These phone calls are recorded, so my managers and I can listen to determine how well front desk personnel are handling inquiries. While roughly 60 percent of customers call before coming in, there are still walk-ins that should be tracked.


In terms of measuring the return on investment, a good rule of thumb is to expect a campaign to generate about twice what it cost to advertise. However, keep in mind that it’s important to include all purchases a customer has made with you during his or her relationship with your shop. An initial visit may only result in a low-dollar oil change, but over several years, that customer may spend thousands.

Finally, don’t forget that advertising takes time. I’ve achieved good results from staying consistent and advertising every month. If something isn’t working, consider how well your staff is handling leads or whether your offers are compelling enough.

Advertising is really only half the battle. Staying focused on customer service is crucial because at the end of the day, if a customer has a bad experience in your shop, they won’t return, no matter how much you advertise.