The car buying and selling process has significantly changed during the pandemic. Consumers’ openness to and preference for buying or financing a car online has almost doubled from pre- COVID levels.
Reasons for this change include increased transparency in online car buying tools, the ability to experience cars through virtual test drives, and – to be frank – the opportunity to avoid having to deal with salespeople in the dealership who are more interested in upselling than understanding customer preference.
Car buying and selling sites such as Carvana, Carmax and Vroom have taken the process completely online. With the cost of used cars at an all-time high due to inventory shortages, many consumers are even opting to trade in or sell their old car online through these websites.
Prior to COVID, automotive was one of the few industries where online penetration was very low, but these market shifts have triggered a significant increase. The online business model is completely new for many auto marketers, and for OEMs to fully adapt to the change and provide a quality user experience, understanding user preferences is a must.
Below are some of the steps marketers can take to enhance the online buying experience and help build brand advocacy and increase customer engagement.
Understand the Customer Journey
It is important to understand the existing customer journey of buying a car online. The journey could be different for consumers depending on where they are in the purchase funnel.
An understanding of the journey is critical at every stage, from linking the right landing page in media to driving site personalization to placing content in the right order. Once the user’s path is identified, steps can be taken to drive better user experience.
For example, most brands have integrated their online shopping experience through third-party tools in their website. Purchase funnel analysis can help in understanding the path taken by the users on the website before buying a car or submitting a lead form.
It can also help identify the top pages viewed by the users in order to optimize the content and user experience. Site personalization and content strategy can be devised based on understanding the journey.
Test and Learn
The best user experience can be driven by continuous testing. Numerous tests can be conducted across channels to drive users down the purchase funnel. The range of levers available for testing can vary based on the ease of execution and sophistication. It can range from simple messaging and experience tests to sophisticated audience/targeting tests.
It is imperative to create a test-and-learn roadmap and tie it to business objectives, so the impact of the tests can be measured in terms of business KPIs. While the brand site is easy to test, as it is managed by a single agency or internal team, dealer sites are generally complex, as there could be multiple website providers.
It is important to identify a site provider that has a good mix of dealers of various sizes, test with one site provider and share the learnings with other site providers to implement.
It is important to clearly define what success looks like for each test and ensure statistical significance can be achieved.
Continuous testing and improvement across both brand and dealership sites can help in delivering incremental ROI tied to business questions and drive enhanced user experience.
Learnings From Offline Purchases and CRM Communications
Though online car buying has picked up significantly, customers still often go to the dealership to test drive or get a feel of the car before buying it – especially for new cars.
Worth studying are differences in peripheral behaviors, such as purchasing an extended warranty, trading in a pre-owned vehicle, adding accessories or financing through a bank or the dealership.
Brands can use the data gleaned from comparing offline and online car purchases to personalize experiences and promotions on the site. Testing can be conducted to assess the most effective order of the content or recommendations can be provided on warranties or accessories.
Communicating with users who have submitted a lead form expressing interest in buying a car online can keep them informed about the buying process and keep the brand top of mind. Also, marketers can provide personalized messages based on the type of model selected and user preferences.
Providing a great user experience in buying a car online doesn’t stop with site experience alone but should be expanded across all channels, from email to apps to other media.
Analyzing data across all channels and creating a cohesive strategy in a channel-agnostic manner will ultimately drive brand loyalty and customer engagement.
Anto Inigo (pictured, above left) is director-analytics at Merkle, a data-driven customer experience management company specializing in the delivery of unique, personalized customer experiences across platforms and devices.