Just as the mainstream auto dealers are beginning to get past the age-old image of fast-talking, cigar chomping carnies in plaid jackets, they have a new fashion concern to contemplate: are they dressing up their web page in the right suit?
An extensive survey of consumers asked to visit manufacturer's websites found that the on-line visitors have little patience for webmastersw who fall behind in the technological race or websites that aren't easy to use.
The AMCI survey didn't focus on dealership websites. But it gives plenty of pointers for anyone who wants to be successful on-line through what the consumers liked and disliked and how they felt automakers can improve their digital images.
AMCI researchers say statistics suggest 5% of all new car purchases will be made on-line this year and already 40% use the Internet as part of the shopping process.
Even more important, fully half of the people who use the Internet as a resource say they eliminate at least one vehicle based on information on-line and also tend to visit far more dealer/factory locations than they would in person.
The results aren't necessarily shocking to anyone familiar with automotive websites.
BMW sets the standard for consumers who want a smart auto site that is easy to use. But Toyota wins the prize as the site they'd most likely recommend to their friends, according to a survey of web users conducted by Vista, Calif.-based AMCI and Troy, MI.-based Eisbrenner Public Relations.
The big losers appear to be U.S. auto divisions with Mercury the only U.S.-based company to make the top 10.
Even Korean automaker Hyundai outscored the rest of the domestic field, with Cadillac as the next best U.S. effort at 12 and American icon Chevrolet at 14.
One big surprise, off-line service darling Saturn could muster only a 40th out of 41 for its on-line serviceability.
Also, General Motors' Oldsmobile Division, which has worked hard to claim Internet leadership with innovative partnerships, mustered only a 25th place, behind not only Cadillac and Chevy, but also Pontiac and Buick. Only GMC and Saturn fared worse among GM's U.S. brands.
Mercury's showing will likely be a salve of sorts for the Ford division's bruised and battered ego, oft-rumored to be headed for oblivion, with a strong showing well-ahead of its rich sibling Lincoln Division.
Mercury has recently aggressively pursued all things web, including a smart partnership with barnesandnoble.com that courts the high percentage of Mercury buyers who also happen to read.
Consumers judged the sites on ease of navigation, product information, pricing detail and other factors that allowed them to quickly make potential sales decisions on the site.
AMCI, a firm that is traditionally more at home certifying claims in automotive advertising, such as Jeep's "Most Capable Sport Utility Vehicle," sees the survey as a way of assuring it doesn't get passed by in the dot.com revolution, says Guy Mangiamele, AMCI marketing services director.
AMCI had done a similar internal review of auto manufacturers sites for the past three years but had never taken the research to consumers.
For the new study, about 300 California consumers with Internet access were directed to 41 auto manufacturer sites and then asked to fill out detailed questionnaires judging the functionality of each site.
They weren't asked to compare sites directly, but instead score them based on function.
Even casual users can quickly gauge whether an automaker has made it a priority to keep up with the latest Internet technology and organize a consumer-friendly site, Mr. Mangiamele says.
It's clear the lower volume manufacturers like Rolls Royce (last), Aston Martin (38) and Lamborghini (39) aren't keeping up. It was also clear to AMCI staffers that BMW deserved its high ranking.
But in a strange twist, top-rated BMW didn't even register in the top 10 when consumers were asked which sites they would recommend to a friend or be most likely to revisit. Toyota topped that list, followed by Isuzu, VW, Mercury and Mitsubishi.
Consumers suggest that improved design, navigation and pricing and financing access are clear ways for an automaker to increase traffic to its dealerships. It was also clear that consumers were frustrated with sites without an easy to find e-mail address for follow-up questions.
Mr. Mangiamele says the findings also should serve as a wake-up call that currying favor with on-line citizens will require more than a hyphenated "e" at the beginning of the name or a dot.com at the end.
Of course the survey wasn't done purely to further the public understand of good automotive Internet marketing.
AMCI and Eisbrenner laid out some of their findings in a 30-page summary but are holding back the juiciest data in three large binders that they're willing to sell to manufacturers looking to improve the sites.
Jeff Green is senior reporter/Detroit bureau chief for Brandweek Magazine. He's at 248-680-8446 and [email protected]