Marketing Machine

Dec. 30, 2016
An intense focus on digital marketing allows ST Billingsley’s shops to thrive

Just 50 yards apart in Woodbridge, Va., you´ll find Steve´s Auto Repair & Tire and HomeTowne Auto Repair & Tire. Both are competing businesses. Both go after the same customers. Both offer the same services.

Both are owned by ST Billingsley.

You might think it´s insane to own two shops so near one another—but Billingsley doesn´t think like you, and that´s why both of his shops thrive. 

His secret has been an intense focus on digital marketing: achieving top-of-mind awareness through social media, targeted advertising and search engine optimization, driving similar demographics to each shop. In just two years of focusing on digital, both shops have gone from absent in Google searches to near the top when searched for in Woodbridge, resulting in significantly higher sales, as the two shops now combine for $3.3 million in annual revenue and 930 in monthly car count.

It´s not just some obsession he can´t shake (well, he´s a little obsessed). As an independent shop owner, Billingsley says digital marketing is mandatory, and with just a little commitment and creativity, he says independents can implement cost-effective digital marketing tactics and rival their biggest opponents.

“National Tire and Battery, Costco, Firestone, dealerships, these guys with million-dollar budgets—that´s who we are competing against online,” he says. “The way they´re marketing is what´s really hurting us. Being nice and washing cars isn´t enough any more. Those businesses are using online marketing to get our customers.”

Digital Bootcamp

At SMX West 2014 in San Jose, Calif., one of the biggest digital marketing conferences in the world, you could find representatives from Google, Facebook, Bing and IBM.

And … some guy from Steve’s Auto Repair.

For years prior to the conference, Billingsley, who bought Steve’s with Scott Whitling in 2005, had grown increasingly frustrated with his shop’s Internet marketing. Even after hiring a digital marketing consultant, he couldn’t catch his largest competitors in Google search rankings.

So after purchasing his second facility (“I knew a competitor was going to move in there, so I thought, ‘It might as well be me,’” Billingsley says of the decision), he wanted a crash course in differentiating his businesses on the Internet, leading him to SMX West.

“Some guy saw my badge and was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Billingsley says. “I told him my story, and after that, I had people coming up to me saying, ‘Let me show you how the Internet works.’ It was the best four days I ever spent on my business.”

Those big players understood the numbers behind digital marketing and its growing importance—and those four days laid the groundwork of what would eventually become Billingsley’s full-fledged marketing plan.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

of Internet users said social media influences their purchases (IBM)

more people search for a product after targeted digital ads over standard ads (comScore Points)

of companies planned to increase digital marketing budgets in 2015 (Webbiquity)

of companies have dedicated social media teams in 2015 (iScoop)

of local searches on mobile devices result in a purchase (Search Engine Watch)

Effective Marketing

Customers don’t give you business based on a Facebook post—it needs to speak to them. Billingsley says the focus should be on the effectiveness of your brand.

BUDGET THE TIME. Billingsley dedicates most of his day to social media—he uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+, and Pinterest (among others)—and researching and executing digital marketing campaigns. 

“Many owners work in the shop every day and don’t have that luxury,” he says, “so I recommend finding a workload that fits your schedule, or forming a marketing plan with a consultant or dedicated employee. Pick two or three campaigns to start, and go from there.”

REMAIN CONSISTENT. The best way to be steady with your digital marketing presence, Billingsley says, is to practice first thing every morning. 

“Walk into work and take photos of seemingly mundane jobs, and post them to whatever social media accounts you’re using,” he says. 

Billingsley usually gets double-digit likes on his various social media channels.

TRACK YOUR EFFORTS. When customers walk in, ask how they discovered your shop and document how many vehicles came in through digital marketing efforts. In addition, monitor your position on Google searches, track click-through rates on Facebook and Google ads, and engagement with social media posts.

“How many clicks to your website equate to customers coming in the door?” Billingsley says. “Do you need 500 clicks to get 80 people? One-thousand clicks to get 80? Is that worth the money spent?”

Reaching Customers

Billingsley’s digital marketing presence is exhaustive, to the point where it’s become a full-time job. But he didn’t get there until mastering Facebook and Google.

Facebook and Google+ accounts are easy to set up and populate. Billingsley says to establish the exact address of your business (it helps with searches) and post photos, videos, positive online reviews and stories from your blog a few times per month, coupled with generic hashtags: #automotive; #carrepair; #mechanic; #localshop.

Above all else, you’re out to improve search rankings. For Billingsley, it started with establishing two Google+ accounts, which, as they’ve grown more extensive, have practically cemented his shops’ top spots in “Woodbridge auto repair” searches.

A Google+ account doubles as a YouTube account. Billingsley’s search rankings only grow stronger with videos using tags.

Billingsley says your website should be populated with keywords, photos and videos highlighting shop specialties. Blog posts should simply highlight car care tips and humdrum repairs at your shop. 

For Billingsley, finding his key demographics and targeting them through Facebook and Google ads has been key.

“Whether you’re just picking a zip code or you’re trying to target down to family of four with a blue house and a big dog—you can almost go that far,” he says.

Look at your market, study your database, and identify which customers are providing the most consistent work and highest AROs. Billingsley’s target demographics and their locations will change as he gets into specific types of repairs and models. It’s important to tinker with ads, change them often and find what provides the most conversions. Google AdWords are similar to Facebook ads and fairly inexpensive and easy to set up, Billingsley says.

Billingsley says budgets for online ads will depend on your location and change month to month, all based on bidding wars from competing shops. For example, Google AdWords’ bidding on the term “oil change” is $3.02 per click in Staunton, Va. (population 23,000), but $5.62 in Woodbridge (population 54,000). Because of that, he sticks to ads targeting tire sales and brake jobs, which cost less.

Out-of-the-Box Digital Marketing Tips:

As Google Maps' biggest competitor, Waze offers directions and real-time updates on traffic. It’s updated by its 50 million monthly users, and, as a business owner, you can promote your shop to passersby. “You can set up little marketing pages and ads, so when people stop at our intersection or come into our area, we show up,” Billingsley says. Each day, 37,000 drivers pass through his shop’s intersection (he’s checked the Virginia Department of Transportation reports). His Waze ads produced 103,000 views, 116 engagements and 79 clicks. After two $50-per-month membership fees, it ends up being a $1.26 cost per click—at least one of those jobs more than makes up for the investment.

Community Websites
Billingsley is often approached about donations from nonprofits, cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, etc. And while he can’t oblige everyone, he can still help. So, just over one year ago, he dreamt up What’s Up Woodbridge, an online publication that highlights various local events and charities in Prince William County. He hired one person to run the website, which, in addition to regular news, posts two auto care stories each month—one from Steve’s Auto Repair, and one from HomeTowne Auto Repair. And each of those stories reaches What’s Up Woodbridge’s 16,000 Facebook followers.

Blog Responses to Bad Reviews
Billingsley doesn’t see a negative Yelp review as a hindrance—it’s an opportunity. “If we get a bad review, we will write a blog post about whatever the issue is and make a video about it and how we’re addressing it,” he says. “Then we make a trackable link from my Yelp response to our website, and we gain traffic through that.” “We’ve gone pretty far with it, I know,” he adds. “We just like doing it. It’s the best video game you can play. You either make money and your business survives, or you fail. And we don’t want to fail.”

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