It’s time to turbo-charge the customer car-buying journey

Automotive companies spend millions marketing their shiny new cars but they could do with revamping the customer journey too, argues Mike Cullis from Soul.

Automotive is an extremely sophisticated sector, featuring complex structures and obsessively designed products that command an enviable retail purchase price, averaging £22,000 in 2015. Yet, too often, the customer experience provided by car companies, especially as expressed through their own websites and social channels, is a mystifying letdown.

The car industry, at its best, is at the vanguard of modern consumer marketing and retail. From building car showrooms in Westfield shopping centres, through to developing an app that allows for delivery of shopping straight to a driver’s car boot it’s a sector that is capable of impressive innovation.

In short, some are spontaneous buyers, some are more anxious, while others are petrolheads with a vast amount of knowledge at their disposal. Each has different requirements demanding a personalised approach during the buying journey.This comes through in the research, which shows that advertising and online content are extremely important factors in determining which vehicles people put on their shortlist and then remove before making a final decision.

Buying a new vehicle can be a complex decision-making process, typically taking place over a 12-week consideration period with an average of 14 new cars on people’s initial shortlist. However, the majority of branded automotive customer journeys fail to reflect this, which is a problem given that the research cites the test drive as “not so much a test drive as a final confirmation”. Greater attention to a tailored customer experience is likely to result in a car remaining on that shortlist for longer.

The brand’s own website is growing in importance for automotive companies. It’s become a vital frame of reference as people see-saw between channels, researching in social media and independent websites, and then coming to the car brand’s own site. Yes, professional reviews are important sources of research but a car’s website and other branded content is not far behind.

And the buying process is increasingly a mobile one, with more than a third of all car buyers researching via a smartphone, up from 5% three years previously. The car brand’s website has become a place of exploration for the driver and plays a vital role in conversion, holding the driver’s hand through the journey. But most sites don’t deliver this, they’re not sufficiently helpful and expect too great an effort from customers. Too few intuitively recognise returning customers, instead requiring lengthy log in processes. And there’s too little marshalling of targeted content and use of Facebook as a retargeting channel to reach those who have expressed an interest in a vehicle.

Volkswagen is not perfect but perhaps comes the nearest to understanding the customer journey and the role of its own website. VW starts by asking the user the purpose of the visit before tailoring content according to whether they are interested in a new car, a used car, van, or company car. The navigation is instantly more human and provides an example of a dynamic approach to content.

Too many car marques provide a static, generic approach, which smacks of the heavy influence of global politics and templates. At the very least, car websites should open a conversation before creating a more reflexive experience.

Automotive brands need to take three actions to create a successful customer experience that leads to the showroom: be more helpful, be more human, and be more dynamic. The big issue they face is that they aren’t doing enough with their data to personalise the customer journey. This has to change and it’s high time that car marketing moves towards providing a tailored brand experience rather than a shouty sales pitch.

Mike Cullis is CEO at Soul

You can read the full article published in The Guardian here.