Of the sea changes in automotive advertising over the past decade, probably the most important has had to do with the Internet’s impact upon communications and sales channels. By Christopher Chen, Industry Analyst for Frost & Sullivan’s Transportation group.

Advertising has conventionally been thought of as an interruptive medium. Stuck in traffic, you see the Castrol billboard. In between a baseball game on television, there is the Toyota ad. These advertisements interrupt your attention; entice you to know about their product. It is a bit of a hit-or-miss, sort of like being approached by a door-to-door salesperson.

However, imagine this same approach on the Internet. Set up your company’s Website, put some information on it, maybe even design an eye-catching layout for it. Is it the same hit-or-miss game as traditional print or broadcast media?

No. The Internet has transformed the playing field for marketers and advertisers by empowering consumers. You cannot interrupt them as successfully because they elect to be on your site. Or not. One click and they are somewhere else – to your competitor’s site, in fact. On TV, when you capture the attention of viewers, as when they are already committed to watching the evening news, these potential clients are more captive to your entreaties than they would be on the Internet.

As the North American market for automobiles becomes more saturated, “companies are trying to come out with stronger, more powerful positions,” says Dan Evans, Senior Vice President at Critical Mass. The ad firm received an International Automotive Advertising Award for its online Mercedes-Benz Dealer Sites and Content Management Tool. “Now it’s less about growing market share and more about grabbing market share from other companies.” And the quality of a company’s Internet presence has become a crucial channel through which to achieve that end.

Targeting for Sales Lead Generation
The online medium has “greater ability [than print or conventional broadcast media] to be a lot more tactical,” Evans states. Whereas print and broadcast campaigns tend to be geared towards relatively general demographics, online marketing can be far more specific in targeting potential customers. The Internet encourages certain features of shopping that advertisers can leverage to their advantage. Three factors distinguish: a proliferation of automotive industry Web sites, their specificity in terms of the consumers directed to those sites, and the fact that consumers actively choose to visit particular Web pages. These characteristics mean that advertisers and automotive companies can be highly specific in whom they target for leads and sales. And that is also why the trend is such that “you’ll see less online advertising on lifestyle or general news sites and more online advertising at points of purchase consideration,” according to Evans.

Even though portals like Yahoo will get millions more visitors on a daily basis than sites like Edmunds.com or Kelly Blue Book (www.kbb.com), advertisers for the automotive industry would rather place banners on the more specialised pages. A high percentage of visitors to those sites are ready to buy cars or car products.

Tracking Purchasing Behaviour
Once you are on an automotive company’s Website, the company can closely track your Web movements. Every click on a Website can be recorded and categorized. This information gives companies customer shopping behaviour data that would otherwise be hard to obtain. A person who speaks with a parts sales representative can tell you the other brands he is considering. That customer may or may not be telling the truth. People can give misleading information about their preferences on the Internet, as well, but the key here is that the high volume of responses that a company receives should yield a pattern of viable responses. When many consumers use a Website, their virtual movements can be tracked and tabulated anonymously (via ‘cookies’ sent from their Internet network to the company’s.) The odds are that the company can gain tremendous insight not only into its own products, but crucial market intelligence, as well.

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Though it does not seem to be common practice, car companies might find value in making their competitors’ product information available on their Web sites. This approach appears, on the face of it, to be counterintuitive. Why help sell a competitor’s products? Wouldn’t it downplay the desirable features of a company’s own products? These are important concerns that should be assessed appropriately, but one advantage of making such information available is in closely understanding one’s customers. Companies that make competitor information available on their own Web sites can then track which other vehicles customers consider before purchasing. Those are front row seats to observing consumer behaviour that previously were hard to obtain. The aim in posting competitor data alongside your own is to keep the consumers within your sight lines – i.e. your company’s Web page. One wants to learn as much from them before they migrate elsewhere.

Dan Evans compares the Web to an “extremely complicated machine with a lot of different knobs you can adjust and tweak. Every change you make influences something else.” He stresses that “the place where programs most often fail is in tracking the impact of changes [to a Web site] upon longer-term insights.” This area is where the quality of metrics that a company (or their advertising firm) uses is paramount.

Not Losing Sight of the Branding
Tactical advertising on the Internet probably works best for companies that are targeting consumers in their final stages of a purchase decision. Selling 0% interest on a vehicle purchase, for example, might pique the interest of those who are going to buy a car, but might also be couched in a boring way to others who are not. In fact, the risk is that a company could “lose some value in their branding,” states Nancy Vonk, Co-Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather.

Vonk urges the automotive industry to “stand out.” The danger with a lot of automotive advertising that is geared towards driving the sale is that it tends to be “very formulaic, falling back to a comfort zone” in terms of imagery and presentation conventions. Though Vonk was commenting specifically about car advertising in the print and TV media, her comments certainly apply to the online challenge. “Brave advertisers see the world as consumers. The best advertising reaches you at a human level. If it’s not memorable, [the ad] has failed. Everything after that is a technicality.”