Market To Buyers Researching Their Next Car

Don’t Wait Until They Have Picked A Make And Model


72% of shoppers start out open to any brand; dealers have 3 months to reach them with savvy digital campaigns.

When I was a dealership general manager, I was taught to believe that the manufacturer was responsible for advertising the model brand, while my focus should be to capture a percentage of the prospects who became interested in my brand.

Where a customer was in the sales funnel drew the lines between Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 advertising responsibilities. Tier 1 was for “conquesting,” i.e. strategic positioning of ads near editorial content and represented the big-dollar ad spend by manufacturers on national campaigns. Tier 3 represented ad spends by individual dealerships, and Tier 2 was a blended focus and collective effort by local dealers representing a specific brand.

It was and is a very linear and logical process, and is the approach that many dealers still take today. However, recent research should persuade dealers to reevaluate this strategy, as the traditional advertising approach may be obsolete.

I attended the “Digital Summit & Mountain View” conference at Google’s headquarters earlier this year. Several Google and Cox Automotive senior execs presented. Here are some key data points that I walked away with (applicable to new car buyers only; Google is now researching buyers of pre-owned vehicles):

  • At the start of the buyer’s process to research a new car, 72 percent of purchasers are open to brand consideration! In other words, a strong majority of new car prospects are not locked into a specific brand at the outset.
  • The average new car sales cycle has been consolidated to 95 days’ worth of the buyer conducting research, watching videos, calling dealers and researching third-party websites to select and purchase a specific car, SUV or truck.
  • During this period, the typical buyer will invest 12.5 hours online and just over four hours offline. The line between the two doesn’t always make intuitive sense. For example, time spent conducting research on a smart phone while visiting a dealership is counted as offline, just because the customer is physically present at the dealership.
  • The typical new car buyer will be influenced by 24 research touch points (meaning, when some element of a marketing campaign reaches a customer) during this 95-day cycle, and most of them are digital.
  • After their research is done, 70 percent of new car purchasers end up buying the specific model they had selected.

A 95-Day Window To Land Customers

If 72 percent of shoppers are open to alternative brands when they start researching but 70 percent have locked in on a model by 95 days later, then dealerships logically should invest at least part of their ad budgets on influencing the prospects during those three months.

If all of your money and energy is spent chasing the 28 percent who start the process brand-loyal or already focused on a specific model, then you’re missing the real opportunities. Your better fishing is for those 72 percent of new car buyers who are open to brand consideration.

Of course, the key issue for a dealer is how to shift to this marketing strategy, in which the messaging is just as critical as where you place the ads. A drill-down on the new messaging content is beyond the scope of this article, but it will be an important accomplishment if you start thinking about the timing of your ad spend. And, I want you to make sure your ad agency is discussing these concepts with you, rather than applying 20-year-old concepts.

Already, some of the industry’s biggest players are taking steps to test different sales models. For example, AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson recently announced (reported by CBT News on June 29, 2015) that his company has a goal of getting customers in and out of its stores in 30 minutes. Jackson believes customers would rather shop from their homes than sit across a desk at a dealership). Even the finance step would be handled, at least partially, online to help give today’s buyer the ease and transparency he or she craves.

New Digital Video Options

Once the message is created, communicating to the right audience is critical. One non-traditional method involves video pre-roll. There are different types of pre-roll options, two of which are TrueView and DoubleClick (both owned by Google). With both, dealers can target auto shoppers with 15- or 30-second ads.

TrueView is largely dependent on YouTube and Google’s display network, while DoubleClick expands to inventory beyond Google. It is important to note that YouTube recently changed its focus to emphasize views rather than clicks to the website. In the past, YouTube let the viewer click on the entire media player (which is where the video is viewed) and be redirected to the advertiser’s website. The new clickable area with the YouTube pre-roll is a small link labeled “View Advertiser’s Site.”

This isn’t the strongest messaging to drive clicks away from the YouTube site. In TrueView’s defense, the advertiser only pays if the entire 30-second ad is viewed, and the viewer can click off after five seconds. If a prospect views 28 seconds of your dealership’s 30-second ad, then you don’t pay, and the average cost per completed view is 10 to 15 cents.

DoubleClick has some non-skipable inventory, meaning the viewer is forced to watch all 30 seconds of the ad, and the advertiser pays on a CPM basis (typically $16 to $24).

Buyers ResearchingTrack Return Visits To Website

Regardless of whether delivery is through TrueView or DoubleClick, dealers have a platform to communicate to “automotive intenders,” i.e. prospects in a geo-targeted area who have expressed an interest in looking at specific models and brands. DoubleClick allows a Ford dealer to focus on F-150 shoppers as well as those shopping for a Silverado or Ram 1500.

Make certain you are using tags to track the number of prospects returning to your dealership’s website at a future date, after they see the ad. These are known as “post-clicks” (immediately return to the website) or “post-view conversions” (view the ad only but come to the website at a future time).

A pre-roll ad may interrupt and automotive intender who is, for example, visiting but also shopping for an F-150. The ad might trigger some interest without the prospect taking action to visit the dealer’s website at that specific moment.

Utilize Post-View Metrics

The post-view metric lets you identify actions taken at a future date (over the next 30 to 60 days). I would suggest that you not tag every page on your website but rather focus only on pages tied to inventory. A post-view conversion isn’t a prospect who sees your ad and later visits your service department’s page to schedule an appointment. The stronger the message in the first 5 seconds, the better the conversion rate.

A dealer needs to communicate a compelling message that is focused on the customer. Pre-roll simply offers an additional way to gain attention from the larger audience of automotive shoppers who are open to brand consideration. It isn’t the only option. A strong percentage of Tier 2 dollars also should be allocated to digital conquesting opportunities, rather than simply to TV and other traditional media.

I hope I have you thinking about what is your dealership’s message and how you will reach your target audience. If your message is largely the same someone gets from the dealer down the street, you’re probably being ignored.