Digital channels are now very significant for the automotive industry, but there is a contrast between some very effective use of online (and especially social media) for branding, and the use of the web for lead generation and sales.
While brands like Porsche have produced some very innovative and effective campaigns, with great use of video and social platforms, many car websites are not joined up enough with the dealer network, where many will end up actually purchasing their cars having researched online.
So what are the barriers to achieving this, and what should automotive brands be doing?
The internet and car research
The internet is now a major part of the automotive purchase process, with the majority of prospective car buyers researching online.
According to a recent survey by Specific Media, 66% of car buyers head online to find out more about the vehicles they are considering, though the vast majority of purchases are still taking place offline.
After researching online, 56% of car buyers head for a main dealer, and 20% other dealers and garages.
So are car dealers and manufacturers making the most of their online presence to aid this research? If more than half move offline to buy from main dealers, is this a smooth transition?
In my experience with a recent car purchase, there seems to be a lack of co-ordination between online and offline channels.
Car searches online often show stock that was sold by the local dealer days or weeks before, while filling in online contact or test drive request forms can be a fruitless exercise as dealers fail to follow up on these leads.
By using online to capture customer information on car preferences, budget etc, and joining up the web and offline to ensure a smooth transition for the customer, the dealer’s job could be made much easier.
Though there are usability issues with some automotive websites, in many cases down to an emphasis on style and branding over the user experience, car selector and car search tools have improved recently.
This means it isn’t so difficult to find a new or used car on most sites, though a fondness for Flash from many brands means research via iPad and mobile devices isn’t always possible.
However, many automotive brands’ websites fail to do as much as they can to facilitate the online research process for prospective car buyers.
It may be that a consumer arrives at an automotive site with a number of possible cars in mind, including those from competitors, but most sites fail to provide enough information to allow for effective comparison of features such as fuel economy, boot size and performance.
This means consumers need to head elsewhere to complete their research, whether this is competitors’ sites or publishers such as PistonHeads, Autocar and Parker’s for more detail.
In addition, while the value of reviews (and user reviews especially) has been widely proven in the online retail sector, automotive brands and dealer websites seem to be reluctant, or slow to embrace this.
By not embracing reviews, automotive sites are also missing out on SEO opportunities. If you search on Google for a combination of car brand+review, then these spots are taken by publishers like Pistonheads, not the car brands themselves.
It’s fair to assume that a web user entering such terms is interested in buying that car, so these are potentially valuable leads that car brands are missing out on.
What car dealers should do online
There needs to be an awareness of the online research process of car buyers. Automotive websites should be accommodating this as much as possible, by incorporating reviews (both user generated and professional), using video content, and comprehensive comparison tools.
Comet is an excellent example of how potential customers can be kept on the site for their product research. Electrical goods aren’t generally as expensive a purchase as cars, though a customer with a £1,500 budget for a laptop still needs to make sure they have the right one, so the research process is similar.
If you look at one of Comet’s product pages for a laptop, you’ll see the basic technical specifications (memory size, processor speed etc), but you will also see a range of sources for reviews, videos, buyer’s guides, user generated product Q&As, and so on.
In short, Comet provides all of the information, and from a range of sources, that customers need to know to make an informed purchase. They don’t need to head elsewhere.This is what automotive brands should be doing.
Comparison tools help customers to compare features of different models side by side
On most sites, it's impossible to do anything other than compare specifications within the brand's range, as with BMW:
This is useful, but it means that people need to head elsewhere if they want to compare the specs against a competitor's model.
Honda takes a different approach, and compares its own models against those of its competitors, even if those models happen to be faster, cheaper, or more economical.
This open approach is vital, as it shows the customer that they can rely on the accuracy of the information shown. People are going to look for this infomation anyway, so the key here is to provide this on your website so they don't have to go elsewhere.
Following up on online leads
In addition, once a customer has selected a particular model, or a shortlist of possible purchases, then the transition from online to the local dealer needs to be smooth.
This is a customer with a specific set of preferences and a real interest in making a purchase so they need to be looked after carefully. Stock shown online should be up to date, at least within a few hours, so that customers aren’t making fruitless searches.
If a customer fills in a contact from, this lead should be followed up quickly, whether online or offline.
Once customers have shown their preferences, dealers should be proactive in contacting customers when stock becomes available.
As is the case with the retail sector in general, mobile has great potential to be a bridge between online and offline. Even if a potential car buyer starts their research offline, then use of mobile apps and websites can influence purchases.
For example, apps and mobile sites from AutoTrader and other publishers can allow the customer to check the model they are viewing on the dealer forecourt against other similar models in the area, or check online for reviews and technical information.
This presents a challenge to the main dealer which can be met with apps and sites of their own to enhance the experience in the dealership.
This could include providing wi-fi, and prompting customers to view video and useful information on their smartphones while viewing cars.
This is an area where automotive brands have produced innovative campaigns, but a focus on translating some of these into direct leads for dealers is one possible tactic.
For example, Ford recently launched a tool to allow its dealers to show real time inventory information on vehicles while on Facebook and YouTube channels.
This means that visitors to a local dealer's Facebook page can search by make, model or price, and can also submit an inquiry directly to the dealer plus refer a vehicle to their friends.
The gap between the dealerships and the manufacturers does present some problems here. Many dealers will operate on a franchise model, which means that the ‘main’ brand isn’t in direct control of what happens when customers visit a dealership.
According to Steve Davies of Fitch Media (and Drivers’ Republic):
The biggest improvement is likely to come from using online as an integrating mechanism to manage prospects through to completion (i.e. enabling a single-view of customers across touchpoints, building intimacy through knowledge of customers last actions etc). The industry is still a very long way away from this, partly due to its fragmented marketing and sales processes.
This does not mean they couldn’t work together. It is in the interests of both dealer and manufacturer to join up the online and offline experiences. The ideal of a great online car research experience, followed by a smooth transition to the forecourt means more sales for both, as well as more effective measurement of online marketing and how it can translate into offline sales.
This gap needs to be closed to allow dealers to take full advantage of the growing trend for researching car purchases online and on mobile.
A closer link between the website and the forecourt means that brands can turn more car researchers into test drivers and purchasers. Ideally, they should arrive at the forecourt to meet a car salesman who already has an idea of the car they are considering, their needs and their budget.
What do you think? Which automotive brands and dealers are using the web effectively? Please let us know below...