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The internet is now a major part of the automotive purchase process, with 66% of car buyers heading online to find out more about the vehicles they are considering, though 56% still buy from main dealers. 

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? 

Here are a few ways automotive brands and dealers could improve their websites... 

A survey by Specific Media underlines the importance of the web in the automotive purchase process, with a third believing that the web gives them more control and makes them less dependent on dealers. 

48% believe that the internet presents them with a wider range of opinion, so they arrive at a dealership armed with more information. 

Though the internet plays a key part in the research phase, the vast majority of purchases take place offline. 56% head for a main dealer, and 20% other dealers and garages. 

Brands and dealers can play a big part in helping customers during the research phase, but can also make the transition from online to offline as smooth as possible to make the most on leads and interest generated online. 

Here are a few suggestions:

Let people research on the site

For most people, buying a car is a pretty big decision, so they are going to want to do plenty of research to find the right model at the right price. 

Unless you have a specific make or model in mind, then you'll want to compare features of similar models e.g., you may want to compare a Ford Focus with a Golf, or the Audi A3. 

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, allowing users to conduct this kind of comparative research on its website: 

The data comes from an independent source (CAP), so if a competitor's model is faster, cheaper, or more fuel efficient, this data will be shown. 

Use reviews

Car research online often involves checking out reviews on sites like Parker's, Top Gear or AutoCar, as well as various user forums. 

When people are researching travel products online, TripAdvisor is a common destination for consumers, and firms like Thomson have reacted to this by incorporating hotel and resort reviews into their websites. 

This makes perfect sense, as it provides the information that people want to see, and takes away the need for them to leave the site. However, no brand or main dealer websites seem to be doing this. 

As well as helping consumers make a decsion, reviews also have SEO benefits. People often search for car reviews, so this presents an opportunity to pick up on more traffic, as well as producing regularly updated content for Google to index: 

Keep used car information up to date

I spent a month or two researching a car purchase earlier this year, often looking at the used car ranges online to see what was in stock at my local dealer. 

In some cases, websites were kept up to date with new stock, but others were way behind, meaning that I frequently acquired about a car I'd seen online only to find that it has been sold a week before and the listing hadn't been removed. 

In my experience, Volvo was particularly bad for this, and the lack of up to date stock information rendered the used car search tool almost entirely useless. 

On the other hand, both BMW and Ford kept their used car stock information up to date online, meaning I could check regularly knowing it wasn't a complete waste of time. 

Make the most of online leads

Another area that annoyed me when researching online was the speed of response to online queries. Again, Volvo was just too slow here.

Having enquired via the online form about a particular car, I had to wait days for a reply. In contrast, when I used the contact form on the BMW site one evening, I received a call the next morning. 

Dealers need to make the most of leads generated online. 

If users are spending time researching cars on the website, then give them plenty of options for contacting a dealer about a car, to book a test drive etc. 

Honda provides a good example here, with a pop up that appeared after I had spent some time on the site. Some may consider it intrusive but it does at least offer plenty of contact options, and using live chat is a great idea:

More usable websites / search tools

As I mentioned before on this blog, a lot of used car search tools are poorly designed and make the process harder than it needs to be. 

There are some good examples though, such as Honda's car search tool. It looks good, it's easy to use (though sliders could be better) and make it easy to edit and revise search parameters. 

Save car searches for later visits

The research process may take a while, so letting customers save a shortllst or search parameters makes it easier for them to pick up where they left off. 

Another good example here from Honda: 

I'd love to read your feedback on this topic. Which car brands or dealers have the most effective websites? What else could they improve? 

Graham Charlton

Published 6 September, 2011 by Graham Charlton

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

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Steve Davies

Good points Graham, especially the varying quality of used stock and pricing information between manufacturers.
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There's a couple of things that I'd draw your attention to from our experience of working in this sector;
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Firstly, online is not a single homogenous landscape for automotive brands. The operational silos are thoroughly entrenched with creative/ad spend picking up the bulk of the investment. Social media likewise operates mostly separate to PR and in my experience nobody owns the customer (and their potential yield) until the they become formally vested in the sales funnel.
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It's all well and good talking about the research and buying tools available to a customer, but I see no likelihood of buying becoming the preserve of a single channel and therefore 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.
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Technology (i.e. online) will not solve this until the fundamental processes and those who govern them are fixed.
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The other element I found missing from the survey by Specific Media is the focus on product awareness ‘prior’ to research. In reality most buyers do not start with a blank sheet of paper, instead the follow a path of familiarity or lowest risk – hence some will buy a Ford because there’s a dealer nearby, or because a relative or friend says they’ve found them reliable and cost effective to run. Buyers who visit an automotive site will quickly be overcome by new information – much of which they don’t need to know, but which manufacturers use to differentiate their products often through the use of clever sounding acronyms – iVTEC, DCT, HDi FAP, PIP. Buyers feel like they’re studying for a degree in astrophysics when all they want is to buy a car which suits their needs.
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Manufacturers such as BMW offer comparison engines on their sites (between BMW and competitor makes), but this still feeds the assumption that buyers should research their purchase in detail, when in fact most people would just like a nice warm feeling that they’re pointing in the right direction – and not looking to buy a total munter..
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That’s where branded content comes in – one of our websites curates all of the branded videos produced each day and we’re seeing a 30%+ increase (year on year) in content being created by brands and used upstream of the buying decision – which focuses more on awareness, building brand affinities and encouraging buyers to bypass comparison engines and research tools (most of which are plagued by out of date information) and choosing to buy a car because they like the brand and feel comfortable placing their trust in them.
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We are effectively heading full circle – too much information and choice online can be counter-productive to encouraging customers towards an early decision – instead online becomes a tool for engagement, relationship building and connecting up channels (online/offline) using coupons/QR codes or some other proxy of the online cookie.
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What manufacturers could do better online is; avoid overcomplicating the process, and use online tools to join up their marketing and sales processes so that a customer need only be recognised ‘once’ rather than having to re-qualify at each touchpoint (booking a test drive for example, or obtaining finance).
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For what is inevitably the second most expensive purchase that we make, the process is still far too fragmented and most car makers use online in an addition to their strategies rather than to integrate them.

almost 5 years ago

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Dave Stafford

Car manufacturer sites are appalling. They load flash animations and ask for surveys as soon as you land on the page.

The only decent car site I've come across is www.carbuzz.co.uk, which is like Tripadvisor for cars, and that's still a long way from perfect. It give an aggregated view of reviews with stats and videos, but don't provide key info like depreciation curves and company car tax info.

I agree with what Steve said above, that for such a big purchase it's amazing how hard it is to conduct in-depth decent research.

almost 5 years ago

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Jim Boulton

A car is a major purchase and automotive brands have to work hard to earn a customer's consideration. However, as you identify, car sites often don't get the basics right, concentrating instead on 3D Flash animations that allow visitor to change the colour of the paintwork - big deal. User reviews, keeping information up-to-date, filtering tools and wish-lists are entry-level requirements for any brand and as for not following-up leads promptly, that's just commercial suicide.

Brands have to make people's lives easier or better before they have the right to stick their product in people's faces. Honda's competitor comparison tool is a great example of this, it shows confidence in the product and is genuinely useful.

almost 5 years ago

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Matt Parkinson

Really interesting article, car manufacturers are still somewhat behind on online developments - however MINI have gone one step further and provided a cross-brand comparison tool that shows the actual costs of annual fuel bills, car tax and general efficiency statistics - http://www.comparemini.co.uk/miniuk/minimalism/comparator/ using third party data.

This data is surprisingly transparent and honest.

almost 5 years ago

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay, Managing Director at 120 Feet

@Matt
Case in point - I followed the Mini link but it starts off with too much animation and then the comparator didn't actually work (FireFox 3.6.22 & Win 7).

To be honest, I think most car manufacturer sites suck, especially VAG sites where they focus on flash and seem to have forgotten about why someone is visiting. Utter rubbish on a slow connection.

almost 5 years ago

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Ian Welch

I think the overall sentiment of this article is correct in that the automotive brands do need to improve the customer experience on the websites. However it misses a fundamental issue that affects most automotive brands. The data infrastructures and business processes between manufacturers and dealers are disjointed, whether this is the car configurator, used car stock research, or enquiry management. The result is an online experience that attempts to deliver to customer expectations but in reality fails.

The biggest challenge in the automotive sector is trying to solve these issues. But in a sector that operates in silos, the ownership of the customer or potential customers is often lost in the drive to protect business interests. The example of Volvo is a good one – for you as the customer the issue is Volvo’s but the follow up process was probably managed by a dealer.

Automotive brands need to take a greater responsibility in helping dealers manage the customer experience; this can only be done by adopting a strategy that supports customers through the lifecycle of owning a vehicle rather than focusing on clever campaigns. By adopting such an approach brands and dealers can see where business and data processes are weak, resolve them and improve the overall customer experience, whether that is online or through actually visiting a dealership.

almost 5 years ago

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psam375

car models and info is very good

about 4 years ago

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stuart devereux

Great article with some very informed and educated comments. I will declare a vested interest in the topic as our latest endeavor is an attempt to address one particular aspect of the article.

Having been a founder member of Autobytel in California many years ago and then subsequently having worked for Portfolio for Cars and 2nd Byte (who are responsible for most of the manufacturers dealer websites) I do agree that sometimes the marketing and development teams sometimes outsmart themselves in trying to introduce the latest web technologies to make their online offering more visually compelling - I think a good example in the automotive sector is the current visual impact of Autotrader which I personally find seizure inducing. Also the salient points in the article do not address why lingscars - with possibly the very worst (in web design terms) website is so succesful

I do believe that nowadays, regardless of whether the vehicle is new or used, the consumer manages to hone-in fairly quickly in terms of what product they are looking to buy - so for me the question is not what to buy - because through my either limited or extensive web research I know what the product is - the question is 'Where should I buy it from?'.

We are launching CarBuyingAdvisor as a way for dealers to absolutely demonstrate and broadcast their committment to customer service and positive consumer experiences.I think this is the one major issue that the brands need to address. There are a thousand places I can buy a used mondeo from today- who should I buy it from?

Sorry for the blatant promotion of my company but because the responders are so informed I would be very interested in your views.

over 3 years ago

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