Meet Alex Melen

We were lucky to catch up with Alex Melen recently and have shared our conversation below.

Alex, appreciate you joining us today. Let’s start big picture – what are some of biggest trends you are seeing in your industry?

With digital importance already growing, COVID pushed us 10 years forward in a 3mo time. The importance of digital and having a digital presence can’t be overstated these days. Business’s that have typically gotten by without having a website or being online now find that it’s crucial to their survival. Think of mall retailers, restaurants, even local mom-and-pop hardware stores. While many of these were fine without a website just a few years ago – these days, they all require a website presence – which translates to a website, search marketing (SEO/SEM) and social media marketing.

However, that’s not necessarily a unique trend – and something most others already realize. The big trend I have personally been seeing in the last 2 years is that with this influx of business’s entering the digital space the cost to advertise has grown tremendously. Not only that, but the room for error has decreased and the consumers patience for slow loading websites or inconsistence has gone down to nothing. It’s no longer acceptable to just do the bare minimum – everything you need to do has to be data-driven, consistent and easy for the consumer. If your advertising doesn’t match your website, you will lose the consumer. if your website creates too much friction during the consumer experience, you will lose the consumer. If your messaging, pricing and customer service isn’t top notch, you will lose the consumer.

This is a trend I see continuing in the next few years where only those who are being strategic, data driven, and investing in improving the customer experience, will succeed.

As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your background and context?

SmartSites is an award winning website design and digital marketing agency, with a focus on search engine marketing (SEO & PPC). SmartSites was founded by brothers Alex and Michael Melen, who grew up with a passion for all things digital. With an innovative vision and a lot of hard work, SmartSites quickly became one of America’s fastest growing companies.

Our relentless focus on our clients has led us to over 100 5-star reviews since our inception in 2011. When Dun & Bradstreet asked “”How satisfied do you feel about the quality of service?””, we scored a phenomenal 97%. We keep our clients happy by delivering results that exceed their expectations.

Think Web. Think Smart.

Any advice for managing a team?

For us, as with any service business, the employees are our top priority. We don’t manufacture a product or produce any tangible good. Instead, our service is provided by our employees and our job as company owners, executives, etc.. is to empower our employees to be successful AND happy in what they do. And I personally believe those things are connected. Employees should be empowered to do their best; they shouldn’t be micromanaged or simply told what to do. Our job at the executive level is to put the right people in the right positions and then empower them to make the best decisions. Of course we create a support system at every level and provide them the resources to make them successful.

It’s also important to have proper financial incentives which means two things: 1) a competitive salary and benefits. and 2) perhaps more importantly, a commission/bonus system that will automatically reward those who want to go the extra mile. This commission/bonus system needs to of course be transparent and easily understood by all. That way, the employees themselves are ultimately in charge of how much they can make – versus just hoping for 3% yearly bonuses.

Combined with empowering them to grow in their position (and grow outside of their position too!), I believe is the best way to maintaining high morale.

How’d you build such a strong reputation within your market?

Reputation is perhaps the most important thing you can have in your business. It’s very hard to build, and very easy to lose. One of our main priorities as a company is to maintain our stellar reputation and empower our employees to go above and beyond in all ways possible to make that happen. As with almost any business, your reputation will make and break you and should be a priority for all.

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A Deep Dive into Vehicle Listing Ads

Now more than ever, people are starting their research for a new car online. A Google/Kantar Gearshift Study found that 89% of research for new cars happens online in the U.S. (with both coasts pushing much closer to 100%). The same study found that search continues to be the top online source for researching a new vehicle, with 78% starting their car research on a search engine. Not only are shoppers researching online – they are purchasing online, with 16% of new car buyers ordering or purchasing their vehicle online in 2021 (compared to 1% in 2018!). And a recent study found that nearly 70% of car buyers are considering an online purchase for their next car.

Why is this important? With consumers being more digital-centric, reaching shoppers online with the right inventory and information will be more important than ever. That’s where vehicle listing ads (VLAs) come into play. You are probably familiar with Google’s shopping ads if you’ve ever shopped for an electronic on Google in the last decade. First introduced in 2012, Google Shopping ads revolutionized the eCommerce space to the point that almost 100% of our eCommerce clients utilize shopping ads as part of their marketing strategy. Vehicle ads are here to revolutionize the automotive shopping experience, just as shopping ads did for eCommerce. What makes these unique is the ad you display highlights the vehicle image, location, make/model, price, dealership name, and mileage. This gives the consumer tremendous amounts of information about the vehicle before they even make the click. Now for the challenges: Vehicle Listing Ads are still complicated to set up (and set up correctly!), and correct measurement becomes even more important. The setup process can be summarized in the following steps:

  1. Create a merchant Center account (like you would for selling eCommerce)
  2. Sign up for VLAs with Google for them to convert your Merchant Center to allow VLAs.
  3. Complete the Vehicles Ads Program sign-up, setting up all of the information in the account – including validating the phone numbers.
  4. Create a feed of your inventory. This tends to be the most time-consuming task since most vendors still struggle with providing a properly formatted Google feed. The alternative here is to crawl the site and manually create the feed.
  5. You can now submit the feed to Google for approval.
  6. Once approved, you can link it up to your Google Ads campaign.
  7. And finally, you can create and launch the VLA campaign.

But wait, there is more! You also want to make sure you have conversion tracking setup properly to not only measure relevant conversions but also assign an appropriate value to each conversion. With VLAs heavily leaning on Google’s Machine Learning (and using auction time bidding), improperly setting up conversion tracking will significantly impact your results. You also want to watch out for VDP conversions, which can be recorded but shouldn’t be a primary conversion (since every click will be a VDP!). Time to enable and set to forget! Well, not quite. You always want to ensure your VLA feed is valid and showing accurate information (you shouldn’t be advertising cars that are no longer available!). Additionally, you want to set up complementary search text ads to complement the VLAs. Google’s internal research study showed that advertisers who complemented existing search campaigns with vehicle ads saw a +25% average increase in conversions (without increasing spend).

Once you’re up and running – the results are typically very strong. On average, we’ve seen a cost per click of $1.50 (vs. $3-4 for search ads), with very high intent metrics like store visits, phone calls, and inventory leads. Although worth noting that when conversion metrics were not adequately set up, the CPCs were still low, but conversion metrics were much lower than search ads. Ready to take your VLAs to the next level? There are also various levels of a campaign structure that can be set to allow you to highlight specific inventory, spend money on the cars that need to be sold, and give you ultimate flexibility. For example:

And lastly, it’s worth noting that Microsoft Ads beat Google to Vehicle Listing Ads and has been offering them for several years. They don’t have the scale, but they have some unique advantages (like showing on MSN properties outside of search results). If you’re doing Google VLAs, you should most likely do the Microsoft equivalent as well:

Want to learn more? If you’re registered for Digital Dealer Las Vegas, you can catch my virtual session on VLAs post-show on the event app. And don’t hesitate to reach out if you need assistance in getting your VLAs set up and taking your digital marketing to the next level.

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Drive Traffic to Your Dealership by Optimizing Your Most Valuable Marketing Channel!

Your dealership is most likely losing out on its most valuable traffic channel: Organic!

Search engines – and specifically Google, continue to be where the vast majority of the country (and World!) start when they want to find something online. Google now averages over 6 BILLION searches per day (as can always be spot-checked via

Google Search is still the #1 tool used for new car research and the best way to reach in-market used/CPO shoppers:

Of course, that all makes sense and is, at this point, common knowledge. But what makes this more interesting is when we start comparing dealership traffic channels and then overlaying the marketing spend against that. Let’s start with the traffic first. As is no surprise (especially after the intro of the importance of Google), a study of over 155 dealerships showed that Organic Search traffic represents more than 51% of total dealership website users (it’s actually 67% when adding in paid search).

So, of course, you would imagine that marketing budgets would closely reflect these traffic channels, with advertisers focusing on the channels that bring in the most traffic.
However, taking a deeper dive into marketing budgets, we found that Organic Search represents the smallest part of most dealerships’ marketing budget (as low as 7% in aggregate, based on our research).

That means that most dealerships are likely losing out on their most valuable traffic channel by not investing in SEO! So, let’s take a step back. What does it mean to invest in SEO? Typically, we can split Organic Search results into two buckets, Google Maps (Local Pack) and Local Organic. Both have different ranking signals and areas that a dealership should focus on to improve their performance. The below chart, sourced from the BrightLocal Top SEO Ranking Factors of 2021, shows where you should focus your energy.

In short, once you have optimized your Google Business Profile and have focused on your reviews, the most crucial ranking factors continue to be your on-page SEO and links. On-page is a combination of technical on-page optimizations and the QUANTITY and QUALITY of your overall site content. Generally speaking, you should be publishing at least 10-20 pages of content each month – the content must be unique, relevant, and attract the right kind of traffic. For example, a page about how to configure your car clock might be unique and relevant but might not be attracting sales traffic. The second part is perhaps the most overlooked – LINK BUILDING! Links continue to be the primary way that Google determines your rankings. The more relevant and authoritative sites that link to you, the more authoritative Google considers you to be. And the content you’re creating just gives you the opportunity to come up in search results. Think of it this way – if you didn’t write that page about setting the car clock, no matter how authoritative, you wouldn’t come up in the results since you didn’t have the content for it.

And to wrap it all up – with Organic Search traffic continuing to be the biggest source of dealership traffic (and usually the best converting!), dealerships really need to revaluate their marketing budget distributions to better allocate money to grow their #1 traffic source.

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24 Harmful Digital Marketing Mistakes To Avoid In 2022

We collaborated directly with marketing experts to gather their insight on the most harmful digital marketing mistakes that businesses must avoid in 2022.

The website isn’t the only place your business’ information lives, though, and may not be the first place people get to encounter your company or what you offer.

“Google is how small and mid-size businesses are found online these days. Neglecting your Google My Business profile, followed by your website, is equivalent to your business not having a phone number or being in the Yellow pages in the 1990s.” —Alex Melen, Co-Founder of SmartSites

Expert Advice To Avoid Getting Tripped Up Online

With the depth and breadth of experience that our digital marketing experts have to offer, we couldn’t cover all of it here. But these were some of the biggest and most common pitfalls that they wanted to make sure everyone avoids, as well as tips and advice that can really pay big dividends for any small business’ digital marketing efforts. To dive in deeper, be sure to check out our full list of recommended marketing and communications professionals who can help you not only dodge common pitfalls but set your campaign up for bigger and better success.

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21 Proven Business Networking Tips From Sales Experts 2022

Determine Your Goal Before the Event

Having a concrete goal for a networking event will enable you to craft a plan and elevator pitch that facilitates that desired result. Co-founder Alex Melen shares a few potential goals and recommends crafting an elevator pitch as well:

“Before attending an event, have a goal in mind. Are you looking to promote your brand? Are you looking for a business partner? Are you looking for a mentor or to become one? Once you have a goal in mind, prepare an elevator pitch. Rehearse what it is that you’re going to communicate to others to make sure you have it down to a succinct few sentences.”

— Alex Melen, Co-Founder, SmartSites

To craft an elevator pitch, write a few sentences that explain a few big customer pain points, how the product or service solves it, and how this benefits your customers. Read our article on creating an elevator pitch to learn more.

21 Proven Business Networking Tips From Sales Experts 2022


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