FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Results of a new study from AutoUSA Internet Sales Solutions showed that financing tools such as online credit applications and trade-in calculators deliver the most valuable website leads.

AutoUSA polled 147 dealership employees, including Internet sales managers, sales managers, BDC marketing and senior management, between September and October for its annual Internet marketing survey. Among others findings, the report showed that pricing and affordability continue to be a major source of consumer objections, while Internet departments continue to suffer from understaffing and declines in lead volume.

"We believe the most successful dealerships have effective Internet marketing strategies, and this annual survey helps to identify how well some of those strategies are performing in current market conditions," said Phil DuPree, president of AutoUSA Internet Sales Solutions.

When asked about the most common customer objection received, 28 percent of respondents said "our price not in line with customer expectations" led the way. Other responses were "customer can't get financing" (19 percent), "customer confidence with the economy" (14 percent) and "customer can't afford a new vehicle" (12 percent).

Those findings contrast results in AutoUSA’s 2011 study, which had “not meeting the customers’ price expectations” as the least-common objection at 10 percent. The most common objected reported that year was “didn't have desired model available" at 25 percent, followed by "can't afford a new vehicle" at 14 percent.

"The difference in sales objections compared with two years ago is consistent with what we see in the marketplace; consumers are finding ways to work themselves through the process and further down-funnel," DuPree said. "And while the economy may have improved somewhat, pricing and affordability are still major hurdles for many consumers."

The study also revealed a new challenge for Internet department in 2013. Two years ago, 31 percent of survey respondents said “Keeping up with lead volume” was the biggest challenge they face. In this year’s study, 26 percent of respondents cited "Not enough leads" as the biggest hurdle they face, followed by “Not of enough staff” at 21 percent.

“Quality of staff” was another challenge cited by 19 percent of respondents, followed by “Staff doesn’t adhere to processes” at 18 percent. Additionally, 18 percent of those polled complained their "marketing budget is not large enough to meet objectives," while only 17 percent cited "keeping up with lead volume" as the No. 1 challenge.

"It's interesting that while Internet departments appear to be spending more than ever on search optimization for their websites, they are not getting their desired lead volume compared with two years ago," said DuPree.

When asked to list the best lead conversion tool, 52 percent of respondents ranked online credit apps as the No. 1 tool. Fifty percent of respondents indicated chat application as the best conversion tool, followed by trade-in calculator (37 percent), coupons (20 percent) and online service appointment scheduler (19 percent).

"Inventory leads and leads from financing tools appear to be the most valuable to dealers, which makes sense because once customers start engaging with a website conversion tool they are probably serious shoppers," said DuPree.

Survey participants were also asked to rate the value of leads they received from their websites. The most valuable were "VIN-specific used vehicle leads" (76 percent of respondents rated the tool as "the best" or "pretty good"); credit application leads (73 percent rate as "the best" or "pretty good"); new vehicle leads (66 percent rate as "the best" or "pretty good"); chat leads (51 percent rate as "the best" or "pretty good"); trade-in leads (45 percent rate as "the best" or "pretty good"); and general contact info (27 percent rate as "the best" or "pretty good").

Respondents also indicated that their dealerships do not allocate enough of their marketing budgets to Internet marketing, with 50 percent of respondents indicating that Internet marketing accounts for 30 percent of their store’s total marketing budget. Thirty-seven percent said digital marketing accounts for between 30 and 60 percent of their dealership’s total marketing budget, while 13 percent indicated that online spending represents 60 percent of their store’s budget.

On the extreme ends of the scale, 10 percent of dealers spend less than 10 percent of their budget on Internet marketing, while only one percent of dealers spend between 90 and 100 percent of their budget on Internet marketing.

Looking ahead, the study did find that 59 percent of respondents expect their Internet marketing budgets to increase in 2013, with 54 percent indicating that much of that spending will be directed toward search engine optimization and search engine marketing. Additionally, 51 percent of respondents said a majority of their budgets will be allocated to leads from inventory sites, while 33 percent said they’d increase spending for independent leads sourced from firms like AutoUSA, Dealix and Autobytel.

As for social media, 33 percent of respondents indicated that a majority of their Internet marketing budget will be directed toward social networking sites in 2014.

The survey also found that a majority of dealerships are optimistic for a profitable 2014. When asked if they believed they would sell more vehicles in the coming year, 85 percent of respondents answered, "Yes, my dealership will sell more vehicles in 2014 than in 2013."