How can automotive brands win digital customers?

Digital marketing is an essential tool for car manufacturers and dealerships but all the teams involved need to work in harmony if the ultimate goal of a sale is to be achieved

Ford car


TV, glossy magazines and the dealership forecourt have long been the mainstays of automotive marketing, but with Volvo’s pioneering decision to make some of its new XC90 models available to buy only online this summer, it seems that the sector is now much more aware of the potential of digital marketing.

It’s not difficult to see why. Industry data provider JD Power’s recent survey found that new vehicle drivers are consuming more automotive content online than offline. Perhaps more significant still are the results of an study from last year that found that new and used car buyers spend 75% of their research time online.

According to Google stats, these customers take an average of 2.7 months to decide on a purchase. With most automotive purchase journeys starting out online, manufacturers and dealerships have a compelling reason to place greater focus on digital channels to pick up customers in the early phases of their research.

“Digital is great, particularly if you’re a smaller brand,” says Mitsubishi Motors head of UK marketing Toby Marshall. “We’re not the biggest car brand in the UK market by any stretch of the imagination, and digital is a very good way of getting yourself onto shopping lists and consideration lists because you can force your way in based on search criteria.”

Conversely, Nissan global head of marketing Roel de Vries told Marketing Week earlier this month that he would be “happy” for the word ‘digital’ to disappear from marketing. “Everything is digital, we should not separate, we should integrate,” he added. But this is a difficult thing to achieve in reality.”

The general aim of digital marketers in the automotive sector is to grab the attention of consumers in research mode and eventually move these potential buyers offline for a test drive or a visit to a local dealership. But there is also the challenge of understanding what works in online marketing when customers use so many channels, since tracking leads from website to dealership is not always simple.

Four examples of creative automotive campaigns

Auto Trader drops a car in the Thames

Stunt marketing remains popular in the social age, but these days people want to get involved in the action directly, which is what drove Auto Trader to hang a SEAT Mii 35 metres above the Thames and leave its fate in the fickle hands of Twitter.

Over 12,000 tweeters mentioned the #winMiiwithAT hashtag, positive and negative sentiment lowering or raising the car throughout the day, and pushing almost 14 million visitors to Auto Trader’s various platforms. One of them even won the car.

Citroën lets you design a car

Billed as the world’s first crowd-sourced car. Citroën let Facebook fans define what a car should be like. Over 24,000 different versions of the final car were submitted and an extra 15,000 fans joined the Facebook page. The whole campaign helped drive a lot of buzz and 500 actual car sales. 

Volvo makes all its dealers more useful

The company made a simple, functional app for its 5,000 dealers: the V40 Launch Event Toolkit. The app collates customer insight, industry information and those all-important brand stories, alongside technical vehicle displays, letting dealers plan Launch Events and help customers be more informed. Delivering this across 64 markets and 24 languages was a technical challenge but 83% of dealers are using the app regularly.

Nissan Leaf: real owners, real questions

This is a mix between a community and a piece of marketing, with a mix of well-made videos and frequently asked questions about the electric car model. The answers are from Leaf owners and are authentic and very useful for potential buyers.

Link up channels

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’s initiative may find that there is a real appetite for online purchase but the focus is mostly on lead generation. Yet automotive brands often operate fragmented marketing and sales processes. Creative ad teams, social media, and websites often operate within silos, with no-one ‘owning’ the potential customer until they are virtually ready to buy.

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.

“Everything is digital, we should not separate, we should integrate. But this is a difficult thing to achieve in reality.”

Roel de Vries, Nissan

As Ford’s former global digital and multimedia communications manager Scott Monty told Marketing Week’s sister brand Econsultancy earlier this year: “It has 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, as 38% of consumers said they will consult social media in making their next car purchase, while 23% of car buyers use social channels to talk about their experience when making a purchase.

Some 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 that matches the brand’s characteristics. Its Not Normal campaign was a huge success, helping to re-establish its brand identity and connect with audiences as a friendly and innovative brand.

As reported in The Guardian, within six weeks 230,000 engaged with the campaign via social media, 2,217 pieces of consumer content were shared and 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 car on its website, 11% of which became qualified dealership leads.

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. Amazon can attribute many of its own sales to the fact that people choose to use reviews on the site. It is also an area that 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.

Nissan’s head of marketing Roel de Vries says everything is now digital and the word ‘digital’ should not be separated out

Reviews drive interest

South Korean car maker Kia has recognised that reviews play an important role in the car research process, and decided to make them the focus of its marketing. 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.

Kia Motors UK marketing director Mark Hopkins told Marketing Week recently: “For the car market, 95% of purchasers spend a lot of time online researching before they buy. So we provide content that people want to watch, engage with and act on at every stage of the consideration funnel. This reinforces our messages around quality and reliability.”

To add to this, Kia then made reviews the focus of offline marketing efforts too. Its TV ads invited viewers to go 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.

Kia head of customer communications John Bache explained Kia’s strategy to Econsultancy last year: “With customer research moving online, we wanted to adapt to 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 as Kia drove up website traffic 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.

Kia’s strategy for online and offline content has led to an increase in traffic to its site and dealers’ websites as well as more sales

Offline meets online

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 dealers and booking test drives, then it’s vital that sales people at dealerships are ready to respond.

A study by consultancy Arthur D Little of 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 on screen, 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.

Two-thirds of all respondents in the Arthur D Little survey expect a confirmation within 8 hours after 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.

Car buyers are now using the internet for research in huge numbers, and also in conjunction with more traditional channels such as magazines, TV and the dealerships themselves. The competitive advantages are huge for brands that can provide a joined-up experience for customers.

Tips for automotive digital marketing

Know your customer

Marketers need to spend time researching the audience, and understanding their online behaviour as well as their lifestyle choices.

Knowing the customer will help them to choose the most effective and relevant marketing strategy and which social networks and websites their potential customers are using.

Create great content

Content needs to be useful and engage buyers in the research phase. This may be blog content on car maker’s websites, videos, imagery on sites like Pinterest, or content placed with other automotive publishers.

One key area to target is content on automotive brands and dealerships’ websites. While it’s inevitable that a lot of research will take place on third-party sites, the more relevant content that answers customers’ questions that is available (technical information, reviews etc), the less likely they are to look elsewhere.

Target key search terms

Automotive brands should be clued up to the potential of search (paid and organic), targeting terms that are likely to be used by customers in the research phase.

For example, the organic search results for terms such as ‘which new car’ or ‘buying a new car’ are dominated by automotive publishers, with little organic presence for car manufacturers.

Auto brands are paying for PPC ads on these terms, but a better long-term strategy would be to target these searchers with great content, optimised for search.

Make social work for you

Be where your potential customers are. The exact social platform may vary according to the audience, but this is where customers are discussing the pros and cons of vehicles, or drooling over pictures of new models.

Make the transition to offline as smooth as possible

At its most basic, this means encouraging website users to compete forms for test drives or contact their local dealer to arrange a visit. Dealerships have their part to play in this, by responding quickly and making the most of the information these leads have volunteered through forms and car configurator tools.