With automotive purchase journeys increasingly taking place online, manufacturers and dealerships have a reason to place greater focus on digital channels to pick up customers in the early phases of their research.

An AutoTrader.com study from last year found that new and used buyers spend 75% of their car research time online, while Google stats suggest that these customers take an average of 2.7 months to decide on a purchase.

This presents a challenge for automotive marketers to grab the attention of these researchers and eventually move them offline for a test drive or a visit to a local dealership.

There’s also the challenge of measuring online marketing efforts when customers use so many channels, as tracking leads from website to dealership isn’t always simple.

In this article, I’ll look at the purchase journey, some examples of automotive brands online, and that tricky transition from web to dealership.

The automotive purchase journey in stats

There are, of course, many variations on this. Some customers may just stick with the same brand or dealer they used the last time, while others may be genuinely more open-minded about the vehicle they want.

One common trend over the last few years has been the movement of car research from offline to online. It seems that many prefer to use the internet for the early phases of their research.

Here are a few stats:

  • New car buyers spend 10 out of 13¾ hours (73%) shopping online, and used car buyers spend 11¾ hours online out of 15¼ hours (77%).

  • The internet is also the most influential source by far:

  • According to Google stats, 82% of car buyers are in the market for three months or less and use seven or eight digital sources on average.

  • Three of the top five ad formats which prompted research into a potential car purchase are digital.

The challenges for automotive marketers

Automotive adverts have become a kind of cliché over the years. Imagine a sleek car cruising through open highways and mountain roads to an adrenaline-pumping soundtrack, and you have the idea.

This kind of content, often produced at great expense, does have its place on TV ads and can be displayed very effectively on the web, from online videos to interactive websites. Indeed, there are some very creative and impressive examples.

However, automotive marketers also need to think about the nuts and bolts of online and how they can most effectively convert online interest into offline sales.

While digital is clearly a valuable channel for the automotive sector, it differs from others such as retail and financial in that the purchase is far more likely to take place offline.

Volvo recently decided to make the first edition of its XC90 model available to buy exclusivey online, and the fact that it sold all 1,927 cars within 48 hours may show an appetite for more online purchases.

However, this is rare and the focus, for the moment at least, is on lead generation. This means bringing online researchers into dealerships via test drive request forms and contact details for local dealers.

The challenge for automotive brands lies in the often-fragmented marketing and sales processes they operate. Creative ad teams, social media, and websites often operate within silos, with no one ‘owning’ the potential customer until they are well along the sales funnel.

Take social for example. To be effective it needs to work with other teams in the business, so that social media content is aligned with the needs of the business as a whole, and that lessons learned via social channels are fed back to the relevant departments.

Automotive and social

Ford’s social strategy has been celebrated, and the brand has been ahead of the curve in this respect.

According to its former Global Digital & Multimedia Communications Manager Scott Monty:

“It’s always been important to us to put social where it can integrate with the rest of the business: we have corporate social strategy within communications; consumer-facing social within marketing; and customer-centric social response in customer service. From there, it’s key that we interface with other members of the Ford team, such as HR, legal, product development, IT and more”.

Stats quoted in a recent study from the CMO Council underline how important social already is for automotive brands, for retention as well as acquisition.

38% of consumers said they will consult social media before making their next car purchase, while 23% of car buyers use social channels to talk about their experience when making a purchase.

Auto brands are making strides here. For example, Mini has been innovative in its use of social channels to increase engagement with its followers and provide a fun experience which matches the brand’s characteristics.

It’s NOT NORMAL campaign was a huge success, helping to re-establish its identity as a friendly and innovative brand.

Mini scoured the internet looking for its most loyal brand ambassadors and discovered hundreds of images and videos on social media that it then used for its campaign.

Followers could upload a creation to its Tumblr hub or by sharing it with #MININOTNORMAL, then within hours could see it on a digital poster or billboard anywhere in the UK.

As reported in The Guardian, within six weeks 230,000 people engaged with the campaign via social media. 2,217 pieces of consumer content were shared. 29,420 new fans and followers were recruited. 

Mini’s Twitter following tripled and 3,853 visitors to the campaign hub went on to look for a new MINI on mini.co.uk. 11% of which became qualified dealership leads.

Consumer reviews

Brands also need to learn from what works for other sectors online. One of the success stories of the internet has been the power of consumer reviews in driving sales. Indeed, Amazon can attribute many of its own sales to its ground-breaking use of consumer reviews.

Of course, reviews are nothing new and recommendations from ‘real’ people were always likely to be more trusted than the opinions of marketers and sales people, but the internet has allowed them to be used more widely.

It’s also an area which offers great potential for automotive brands, though they have been slow to adapt, perhaps due to the fear of negative reviews of cars and dealerships.

Kia took a different view of this, recognising that reviews play an important role in the car research process, and decided to make them the focus of its marketing.

Its TV ad campaign which started last year focused on reviews, inviting viewers to see what others thought of their cars.

In what was a relatively brave move for an auto brand, Kia invited detailed reviews of its vehicles from buyers before displaying them on its website. This alone was significant, as it meant that customers could conduct their research with less need to visit third party sites.

After all, consumer reviews are, after recommendations from family and friends, the most trusted source of information online. Providing reviews on the site meant that a greater number of potential buyers could be kept within the purchase funnel from this stage.

To add to this, Kia then made reviews the focus of its marketing efforts both online and offline. Its TV ads invited viewers to head online to see what its customers thought of the cars, while the same principle was applied to print and outdoor advertising, as well as its showrooms.

As Kia’s Head of Customer Communications John Bache explained:

With customer research moving online, we wanted to adapt to that. We knew that customers were happy with our products, and we wanted to harness that. It was a leap of faith to some extent, but if people want to find reviews online they are there somewhere. We’d rather provide them and keep people on our site.

It worked too, with traffic to the Kia website up by 21% year-on-year as a result of the campaign, while visits to dealer websites rose by 72%. In addition, new vehicle registrations rose by 12% in the same period.

Automotive and content marketing

This is vital for automotive, as great content can catch the attention of potential car buyers in the research phase, answering key questions and providing inspiration.

Ben Davis has provided some very good examples of automotive content marketing, and I particularly like the Nissan Leaf Q&A pages, which use existing customers to explain the benefits of the car:

The transition from web to showroom

The transition from web to showroom is a key area, and one that many automotive brands could improve upon. Once customers are showing real purchase intent, such as using car configurator tools on websites, looking at details for finding dealers and booking test drives, then it’s vital that sales people at dealerships are ready to respond.

For example, an Arthur D Little study looking at online transformation in the automotive industry found that 60% of new car buyers see configurator tools, which allow them to test different combinations of models, colour, equipment and accessories, as very important in making a purchase decision.

If the processes are joined up, these tools also offer useful insight into a customer’s preference which should be useful for sales people.

Another vital factor is the speed of response to test drive and contact requests made online.

Online marketing can be effective for delivering leads, but this effort is wasted if sales processes aren’t joined up with offline. This is where dealerships and manufacturers need to work together.

In the BMW example above, I can select my car and configure it to my tastes and needs, before sending the details to my local dealer.

This is great, but the key will be how quickly the dealer responds, and whether the information I have already submitted online is used by the salespeople offline.

67% of all respondents expect a confirmation within eight hours of sending a request for a test drive, 22% are prepared to wait 24 hours but only 10% of consumers would consider waiting more than 24 hours for a confirmation as acceptable.

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.

Essentially, dealerships and manufacturers need to work together to join up the online and offline experiences. The ideal would be a great online car research experience, followed by a smooth transition to the forecourt, which means more sales for both, as well as more effective measurement of online marketing and how it can translate into offline sales. 

Car buyers are now using the internet for research in huge numbers, and in conjunction with more traditional channels such as magazines, TV and the dealerships themselves.

This does present challenges for automotive marketers but it also opens up possibilities for the automotive brands which can provide this joined up experience for customers.

A version of this article was previously published on Marketing Week