There’s not much you can’t buy online these days. However, one purchase that will remain bricks-and-mortar for the foreseeable future is the automobile (unless you’re Volvo or Tesla).

The process of buying a car is split, just like an online purchase, in two phases: initial research and the purchase.

The difference here is where it happens. The first, for most consumers, happens online. The second does not, and that’s where digital marketers begin to pull their hair out.

Phase one: research

According to Google stats, It takes 2.7 months on average to decide on a new car purchase. That’s a long time for car brands and dealerships to try and put their best case forward. Based on current trends, the best place to do that is online.

According to an AutoTrader.com survey, 95% of millennials research mostly online, and 75% of car buyers did all their research online.  

Phase two: purchase

Here’s where it gets tricky for digital marketers. 51% of dealer contact is midway or earlier in the research (Google Gear Shift 2013), and once that happens, they’re basically out of the game. 

Taking the transaction to a dealer means the performance of digital marketing is extremely difficult to measure, especially without a clear link between the two.

More bad news: 78% of new car customers want to call the dealer during the purchase if given the option to visit the site or call direct.

For digital marketers, this isn’t surprising. The challenge is bringing the research phase together with the final decision and actual purchase for a seamless and trackable experience.

So, how do we bring these two phases together?

Five ways to consolidate the auto purchase journey

1. Make the test drive digital

The first and most obvious way is to allow your customers to book test drives on the web or through your app. Add an extra dimension to the experience by taking the test drive itself mobile.

Most new cars have Bluetooth, and can interact with mobile devices – why not ask for a rating and quick review after the test drive? Better still, show the ratings of other drivers for social proof.

Luxury car maker Lexus recently started displaying driver ratings in its test drive booking confirmations, demonstrating the power of driver opinion.

2. Online customisation

Using the power of customisation is another way to extend the online purchase process. Just as you can buy a computer online, adding memory, storage and accessories – the auto purchase process could take the consumer through customisation of their future vehicle.

With a few clicks, they could add roof racks, sports kit and leather interior. Your new customer could order their customised vehicle from your website, commit to payment and pick the right dealership, again consulting reviews. 

3. Learn from your traffic

You’re still going to have customers researching online and then visiting a showroom to talk to a dealership so the transition needs to be as seamless as possible.

What if dealers could get the key details of consumer behaviour on the car manufacturer’s website? Potential customers often visit car manufacturer websites as part of their research, but once the transaction moves to the forecourt the dealer is totally unaware.

Perhaps the consumer could give consent to the car manufacturer to use their web behaviour to make the showroom experience better. Knowing what the consumer has and hasn’t seen can surely help the conversation.

4. User generated content online…

Another way to do that is to provide plenty of fresh, rich user generated content the whole way through.

89% of car buyers read reviews as part of their purchase journey so you should be collecting and showing them online anyway. Rich and granular reviews, separated by vehicle facets (fuel economy, comfort, fun to drive etc.) are especially important – and once you’ve collected the content, you can display it everywhere.

5. …and in the showroom

Arm your dealers with reviews and peer-to-peer Q&A content for each model. Showing potential buyers the opinions of owners is a powerful way to close the deal.

In the automotive dealership, digital video walls would be a great place to show your customers they’re in the right place to buy. That is, according to your previous customers.  

Using UGC on the showroom floor and making sure dealership staff are aware of the ratings and reviews available brings the online and offline experiences together, creating a natural and coherent journey that’s digitally savvy.

Until the whole car buying experience can be digitalised, digital marketers have some work to do to create a seamless purchase journey, but using the voice of the customer in clever ways can make it easier.