In many respects, the automotive industry is quite a traditional one, particularly when it comes to its digital presence and how its products – cars – are presented digitally.
But with fewer and fewer consumers visiting car dealerships in person, instead opting to interact with automotive companies online, brands are beginning to realise that a change is needed in the way that they approach digital strategy.
Audi is one of those brands. In October 2017, Audi UK revolutionised its approach to digital with the launch of beta.audi.co.uk: a mobile-first, fully responsive online experience that was designed to put the customer back at the centre of the car-buying process.
The website was initially launched as an A/B test to compare performance with Audi’s existing desktop and mobile sites, and after delivering impressive returns, has since been rolled out to all of audi.co.uk’s visitors.
Antony Roberts, who joined Audi UK as Head of Digital in 2016, spearheaded the transformation of Audi UK in partnership with Somo, Audi UK’s long-time digital collaborator. I spoke to Roberts, together with Ross Sleight, Chief Strategy Officer at Somo, about how Audi UK and Somo came to develop and launch the beta.audi.co.uk site; the results it yielded; the inspiration for Audi UK’s revamped approach to digital; and what the future holds both for Audi UK and for the automotive industry.
From traditional to innovative
“A couple of years ago, brands in the automotive industry all looked exactly the same as each other,” Roberts recalled. “We were all very much a desktop-first, traditional brochure-ware kind of experience. Nobody was doing digital well.
“Audi UK had an A-grade ad campaigns and national communications team, who were setting new standards with articulating what our brand meant. But looking across our digital estate… that wasn’t quite replicated.”
The inspiration for beta.audi.co.uk was born out of a “change of digital strategy”, which is summed up in a simple strapline that Roberts devised: “To provide the best digital experience for our customers and users bar none.”
Audi UK’s digital presence had previously been split across two separate websites: a desktop site, www.audi.co.uk, and a mobile website, m.audi.co.uk. This was the source of a lot of inefficiency and complexity, requiring Audi UK to maintain two distinct digital presences, and making tracking, tagging and reporting on campaigns significantly more complicated.
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The team set out to build a “premium web experience” that was synonymous with the Audi brand. Based on a piece of research in which they had invited customers to share what they disliked about car websites, they simplified the experience of browsing for new car models, eradicating complex language and implementing a comparison feature that quickly and effectively allowed users to hover or slide to show the differences between Audi’s models and trims.
“Within seconds, you can understand what the options are, as a customer,” said Roberts.
The new Beta site used technology “in a completely different way”, in Roberts’ words, and brought Audi UK’s digital presence onto a single, fully responsive platform, in line with other Audi markets. It was also much more discoverable, thanks to website language that was written with SEO in mind.
“We’ve been leaving no stone unturned to make sure that there is consistency between what you eventually pick up after you’ve parted with your hard-earned cash, and the way that you get there,” said Roberts. In other words: a digital experience to match the quality of the end product.
“From Somo’s perspective, it was an incredibly exciting project,” added Ross Sleight. “It had its technical challenges, and it had a requirement to focus on absolute customer needs and get as close to the customer as possible.
“Presenting Audi not just as a premium auto manufacturer but as a premium brand has been a fantastic creative, design and cultural opportunity.”
Creating a “new premium” digital brand
The idea of “premium” cropped up a number of times during the course of our conversation – not just because Audi UK considers itself a premium car brand and wanted to create a digital presence to match that, but because Roberts’ vision for the new audi.co.uk experience was heavily influenced by premium retailers. In order to break out of the traditional automotive brand mould, Roberts looked to other sectors for inspiration on how to do digital well.
“Retail websites showcase their products in such a charming and elegant way that you fall in love with them just on the screen,” said Roberts.
Audi UK’s old product pages displayed the car at a very small size and surrounded it with “a million calls to action” that were confusing for customers – and even the team, Roberts explained. The key objective for the revamped website, therefore, was to “simplify – make the car the star. Put it front and centre.”
“Premium retail was a massive influence in this respect,” he added.
However, while many high-end brands have a similarly high-end digital experience, any brand can do digital effectively, and Roberts often found that inspiration came from unlikely places.
“Whilst I say ‘premium’ because we are a premium brand and we have to showcase our products in the most premium way, I believe in the concept of what I like to call ‘new premium’,” said Roberts. “New premium is about giving customers what they’re after in a way that is charming, elegant and effortless.
“You don’t always have to look for premium retailers to get that – we looked at brands as diverse as Newton Running, who are a trainer company that showcase their trainers in a really beautiful, simplistic way; brands like ASOS; and even Orangina. The way in which they showcase their product is very clever.
“And whilst you might say that some of those are premium brands, even those brands that very much aren’t premium are providing a premium digital experience for the customer.”
“New premium is about allowing you to run functionality that is focused, and that the customer actually wants, in terms of where the calls to action are and where the information is,” Sleight added. “It’s about being one step ahead of what the customer’s needs are, and at the same time, blending that with an emotional response.
“That’s very difficult to do in digital. We do functionality brilliantly – Amazon is a functionally brilliant site, but it is not an emotionally fantastic shopping experience. So, blending the two of those things is my interpretation of where new premium is. That is what leads to increases in – not only in actions taken by the customer, but also, based on all the feedback that we’ve had from a qualitative perspective – the emotional response that customers have to a brand. They loved it more.”
Audi took inspiration from brands as diverse as ASOS and Orangina while revamping its digital presence
From the initial idea for the Beta site, which grew from what Roberts calls “a hunch and some data”, Audi UK and Somo had a product they were ready to go live with after 20 weeks of development, made up of 10 two-week sprints. The site was developed in a rapid manner, with feedback solicited from customers after every design sprint.
What results did they see from the initial test? The Beta site was initially launched to 20% of visitors to the mobile and desktop audi.co.uk websites, and it yielded an impressive upswing in visits to key site areas and tools.
In particular, Audi UK saw an 81% increase in visits to model pages, and a 109% increase in visits to the used car search platform – which was already popular to begin with.
Most excitingly, the Beta site brought about a 117% increase in visits to the “Request a Quote” tool, a major indicator of intent to purchase, and an increase in test drives. The owner’s area, which allows existing Audi owners to find details about their car, book a service, arrange an MOT, etc. also saw an 80% increase in visits.
Traffic to the Beta site was gradually ramped up over the following months until it became Audi UK’s main website. Since then, the numbers have tailed off a little, but are still much improved from their levels on Audi’s old website.
“I’m eager to articulate that this is just the start,” said Roberts. “This isn’t providing the best customer experience bar none – but it tells us that we’re pointing in the right direction.”
The process of launching also taught Audi UK’s digital team all kinds of valuable lessons.
“The key thing we learned was that nobody really likes change, especially big change. There will always be the haters, the doubters, and the nay-sayers,” Roberts reflected. “What we found internally was that launching this as an A/B test gave us the data to back up the ‘hunch’ that we had – and allowed us to go back and say, ‘It’s performing this well.’
“Learning from that, and introducing things gradually, was a great move. It’s also part of an agile methodology – you should go out with a small increment of the product and gradually start to tweak and iterate as you go.
“Also, on the subject of change: don’t be afraid to try, but don’t be too proud to iterate and adapt, either. Something that your whole team is working on and pouring their efforts into does become emotional, and it’s very difficult to remove that emotion and be objective sometimes.
“Constantly checking in and testing is important, as is giving people enough ownership that they feel proud and can see it through – but not so much that they’ll be belligerent about pushing something through when it’s the wrong thing to do. It’s a very difficult balancing act, but I think we got there.”
The beta.audi.co.uk test site gradually took over as Audi UK’s main website
“A lot of the time, we talk about things like being ‘customer-first’, ‘learning and failing fast’, which are glib phrases that we throw around in the industry – but doing them is hard,” added Sleight. “Doing these things within a corporate structure requires an immense amount of trust between the partners, and often a heavy hammer to break down external or internal resistance. It’s a hard process to go through – but the benefits are just immense.
“The principle of making great products requires a cultural change, and a change in the way that people take ownership and live with failure. It’s important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, you’ve only got one person at the end of all this, and that’s the customer.”
A lot of the time, we talk about things like being ‘customer-first’, ‘learning and failing fast’ – doing them is hard.”
– Ross Sleight, Chief Strategy Officer, Somo
A block on the way to digital transformation
The situation, and the mindset, that Sleight describes will no doubt sound familiar to anyone who has embarked on (or even read about) digital transformation. I asked Roberts and Sleight whether they considered the changes that Audi UK has been undergoing to be a digital transformation, or whether they didn’t see that phrase as being applicable.
“It’s one of the blocks on the way to digital transformation,” Roberts said. “I would never suggest that the changing of a website encapsulates digital transformation – but it all helps.
“What it has done, from an internal cultural perspective, is change the way that people view us as a digital team. We started out, a few years ago, almost as a vertical pillar within the organisation – and what we’ve begun to do is knock that pillar over, so that we’re cross-cutting through the entire organisation, and people are viewing us as a viable means of transforming their own business area.”
Sleight agreed, adding that while a lot of emphasis in discussions of digital transformation tends to be placed on products, the process is by far the most important part of the equation.
“A digital product is probably the most visible manifestation of a transformation strategy, because it’s the thing that you interact with – it’s the thing that sets expectations and meets the customer needs. You can very quickly understand, when you look at the difference between, say, Monzo and a high street bank, how they meet customer needs and who is transforming the sector the most.
“But digital transformation is operational, process and cultural. The arrowhead is product, which allows you to have the conversations to make those changes, so that you are nimbler, more agile, and able to make decisions more quickly, and go with ‘strong opinions, lightly held’.
“That changes the ‘command and control’ structures that we’ve had since the ’70s and the ’80s and allows us to work cross-functionally in self-organising teams where lots of different disciplines are represented, and we can get to an answer quickly because we know what we want to achieve. Ultimately, that’s what digital transformation is: it’s not about the end product, it’s about giving us the opportunity to have the conversation.”
What the future holds
Where does Audi UK plan to go from here? As Roberts and Sleight have emphasised, the Beta site test and deployment is only a starting point – albeit a very promising one – from which they plan to continue optimising and improving on Audi’s digital offering.
“We’re going to really kick on with this strategy,” said Roberts, “and stop looking over our shoulder at our direct competitors – and start to follow the lead set by competitors in the market.”
What this means is that, in the digital age, customers have a wide variety of products and services that they pay for in regular instalments – including cars, which are frequently bought on finance. Roberts considers all of these companies to be Audi’s competitors – not just other car brands.
“What we’re looking at now is a share of wallet rather than a share of market,” he said. “We’re now competing against your John Lewis store card, or your Sky TV, or your utility bills. All of these brands are improving their digital experience to make it simple. So, when customers come to ask themselves, ‘Do I spend more on one or the other of these?’, will it start to be the quality of experience that makes up their mind?
“We’ll quite literally be screwing up everything we thought in the past – the sacred cows we’ve held dear – to rethink things.”
We’re now competing against your John Lewis store card, your Sky TV, or your utility bills. All of these brands are improving their digital experience to make it simple.”
– Antony Roberts, Head of Digital, Audi UK
This situation promises to become even more complex in the long term, as Roberts predicts that the entire concept of car ownership could change – which will have a knock-on effect on how customers interact with car brands.
“It’s no great news that the way in which people own cars will probably change in the future,” he said. “Ownership of both cars and houses is changing – younger people might not want to have to invest £50,000 in a car or have the same car for three years. They might not want to own a car at all, and just use one when absolutely necessary.
“Will we have a mobility-style rental provision that we offer? Will it be about services, or about transport as an ‘A to B’ consideration rather than car ownership? Will Audi be your premium mobility partner, rather than just your car? There could be loyalty programs or membership options that give you access to a car at weekends, or on your birthday.
“It’s a more fluid system of being engaged with a brand.”
“In the next 10 or 15 years, the whole auto industry – between ownership models, autonomous driving, electric cars – is going to have fundamental revolutions,” Sleight concluded. “And the ability to continuously evolve and learn is going to be the key to success and growth.”