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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.

The problems 

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.

Reviews

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 

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. 

Mobile

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.  

Social media

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 barriers

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...

Graham Charlton

Published 6 June, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (10)

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Doug Topken

Hello Graham,
This is a timely topic for me as actually I am in the middle of two car buying processes. I do not disagree with your assessment of how online tools are being used today, how they might improve, and the challenges - perhaps particularly here in the USA - of connecting (joining up in your english) the online with the offline.

So to answer the question posed in the headline, for the US, my response is that the automakers should disintermediate most of what the US car dealer is today. My gut tells me that your Specific Media survey results, if looked at through a North American lens, would indicate that well north of 80% of consumers start their new car buying process online.

The US car dealer salespeople mostly serve their own purposes and in my experience do nothing more than frustrate customers and cause hesitancy and cognitive dissonance. The Sales Prevention department has move from the back office to the front office.

I say turn the dealerships into vehicle delivery showrooms and better service departments. That is where the value is and money is made once the vehicle leaves the assembly line anyway. There is a reason why there is a cliche negative stereotype applied to car salesmen here - it is spot on correct. Eliminate them all.

If you really want to experience this for yourself - and it is fascinating really, pop into a dealer on your next US visit and present yourself as a transferred employee in need of a car. Then resist the urge to scream.

Cheers and keep up the great writing!

Thank you,

over 4 years ago

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Jon Leon

I've also recently been researching buying a new car online and while many manufacturers do have a good online presence, when it comes to local dealers there's often very little, especially with social media. I think they're missing a huge opportunity here to build local awareness and engage with their community that would, I'm sure, help drive sales.

over 4 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Graham and I have discussed this subject several times (thanks for the mention) and there are 'two' main parts as described above;

1) the lead management, sales support, customer management processes - this centres around elements such as single customer view (from the car maker's perspective), next best action decisioning tools at each touchpoint and customer memory (i.e. remembering the customer's last action and starting from that point at their next interaction)

The objective here is to simplify the complex relationship normally conducted across multiple stakeholders and touchpoints into its simplest form. Years ago we used to call this 'making the Elephant dance' or 'transforming the supermarket into a cornershop'. It's the very foundation of good customer service and 'effective' sales management.

There are many ways of addressing this - versions of which are already available from providers such as salesforce.com.

2) the information gathering and pre-decision making processes - which are also 'highly' fragmented and ineffective. The goal of the car maker ‘should be’ to provide the best and most relevant information to aid a customer's buying decision, in as short a time period as possible. Any car salesman knows that their chances of closing a sale drop considerably when a prospective buyer walks out the showroom. Buying a car is a significant and complex decision and most people will choose the 'safest' route (i.e. familiar, recommended by friends/family), especially when dealing with a subject they only consider once ever few years.

The obvious solution is for car makers to actively curate content, blogs and reviews for customers, saving them the considerable time and effort of searching for themselves. We live in a world where ‘social discovery’ is replacing ‘search’ and therefore brands should be investing their time to facilitate this.

Let me provide a few examples. Every brand has a Facebook page, right? But does this function as a content portal, or merely somewhere to publish 'news' about their products and events?

You might not be aware, but car makers launch every new model with a press launch, usually flying journalists out to exotic locations, putting them up in 5-star hotels and giving them the latest new car (fully fuelled) to use for a day or two. The journalists then write a review which gets published online (and offline). How many times have you gone to a car maker's website and browsed through the list of published reviews for a particular model? Car makers also hand out cars to journalists for extended periods (6 -12 months), who then occasionally publish reviews. Have you ever found links to these reviews on a car maker's website? In reality, you are at the mercy of Google to find out where to go, who to talk to and which opinions you can trust.

The automotive sector has a long way to go before they understand how to optimise the web to benefit their business. The web could be such a powerful enabler of customer satisfaction, reduce time-to-purchase (TTP) and create real competitive barriers around early sales prospects, but despite opportunities being lost, I don't get the impression it's keeping CMO's and CFO's awake at night.

I’d be delighted for one of them to prove me wrong - or at the very least put their hand up and ask how could they could do it better..

over 4 years ago

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john appleton

A very interesting topic.I recall a Marketing Society forum on the motor trade in around 2004.On the panel were clients from GM,Land Rover,Toyota and one other I dont recall.

When I asked a question from the floor - " given that 26% of US car buyers start their process with a search on a search engine - how does the panel intend to adopt search as a strategy?"

To spare the blushes of those concerned - the answers were -

" Yes the internet - I cant get my kids off it - no relevance for us though"

" There's no way we could sell a Land Rover online"

I cant remember the other one - and Simon Thompson I think it was from Toyota didn't offer an answer.

How we have moved on - though at the time I was somewhat surprised by the blase approach to what was clearly going to be a major force in the marketplace.

over 4 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@john appleton - and just as they cotton on to the value of search, the rest of the world has moved on to social discovery.

I wrote an article on Econsultancy a few months ago about the changing patterns of video duration in social campaigns, explaining why longer-form videos were increasingly winning out over the traditional 30-second TV spot.

So, I was talking to one of the marketing managers in a major car maker yesterday who scoffed at me for suggesting a 4-minute video could form the basis for an online ad. I was speechless (for a few moments) as I considered how to let them know how out of touch they are.

Which emphasises another issue, despite the convenience of the web most of the automotive execs I speak to spend little time looking at what their competitors are doing. Almost 'never' look at the coverage their products get in the press (they leave that to their media agencies) and have no measurement criteria to assess the effectiveness of their earned media activity beyond knowing that the launch event went well.

Just imagine what the sector could achieve if it caught up?

over 4 years ago

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Louis Rix - Netcars.com

Coming back to the title of this article I think you've missed a big talking point - Tracking!

A vast majority of car dealers need to get more in tune as to where and what channels are driving the most leads into their business and re-investing more of their budgets into channels that offer the best CPA. I'm not labelling all dealers here, as some franchises and independents are excellent at tracking, but there's a vast amount that don't even get the basics right.

The points made in this article are indeed very good points and ones that dealers should be trying to implement, but as the automotive industry is quite a way behind other sectors I believe the basics should be executed correctly before you start moving into the world of SEO, social media, video marketing & conversion rate optimisation.

From my point of view it's all well and good having car reviews and comparison tools on your website if you're a manufacturer/main dealer as that's where a user would expect to see them. However, from an independent dealers point of view i think they should be concentrating on tracking and increasing conversion on their own websites first. You may argue that car reviews could drive extra traffic but if these reviews aren't unique in their content they will hold no SEO value whatsoever. As the car review sector is very competitive i also find it highly unlikely that an independent or franchised dealer would outrank the likes of WhatCar, Parkers and Auto Express for example. Price comparison tools however, would undoubtedly improve conversion in my mind so would be a good addition if the design is executed correctly.

Moving on - Franchise & independent dealers alike should be investing more time, effort and money into their own websites and branding efforts to reap the benefits that the online world can deliver. Continue to do this along with driving as much traffic to your website as possible will inevitably drive returns for your business.

For car dealers Twitter is fantastic for engaging with your loyal customers, catching people in the buying cycle and it can be used as a great reputation management tool. Facebook on the other hand can be great for branding especially when using Facebook ads.

I do agree that dealers in general need to act quicker on email response times and i guess this comes down to a management process within the dealership. Who actually is responsible for dealing with web based enquiries? I can guarantee a dealer would get better returns if they had a dedicated handler for web enquiries.

For all dealers in the UK I'd advise for a good split of channels for driving traffic. Examples include - Using Classified websites, Google & Bing PPC, SEO (use a reputable agency), Facebook & Twitter, Email marketing & video marketing however, only the thought leaders will be doing all of the above & more.

I hope i've added a different slant on the article and if anyone has any questions or comments please feel free to join in the conversation.

over 4 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Very good points Louis, I was looking at it from the corporate side, but you're absolutely right about independent dealers and of course sites like yourself who act as intermediaries - adding value through simplifying the search and discovery process for customers.

I'm sure you're aware of the mandate Daniel Mintz took on when he joined Trader Media in '09. He called around all of the main publishers to strike up content partnerships, but misunderstood the value he could offer to partners and the way this would work for Auto Trader (i.e. the SEO penalties of duplicate content).

For dealers (main and independent), how many of their visits are direct compared to referred? Apart from browsing a used car listing I'd have thought most of us just visit to check their address (and opening times). It wouldn't take much effort to generate more direct visits by publishing unique content - trend analysis, focus on best selling cars, hints and advice on car maintenance and coping with winter.

In fact the basics of our advice for any B2B or B2C website is to publish a blog, share useful information and bring your brand to life. Tracking and then optimising that engagement is as you say the very basics of digital marketing.

over 4 years ago

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David Newman - Mercedes-Benz Hertfrodshire

Hi,

Thank you for the article, it made good reading.

I am the Digital Mareketing Executive for Mercedes-Benz Hertfordshire and I agree with louis Rix from Netcars point: Trackable leads.

Its great to embrace and get involved with Digital, to pursue fun, exciting and innovative channels of advertising. However, if these new channels are not properly tracked then it's impossible to create an effective digital marketing forecast goign forward.

Two points I agree with and will be pursing is the benefit of a mobile website and the benefit of adding fresh relevant automotive content (reviews/news/articles) from an SEO perspective.

over 4 years ago

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Milligan

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over 4 years ago

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Fernandes

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over 4 years ago

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