Outlook 2006: Creating the Next-Gen Web Site for the Auto Industry

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Perhaps the biggest near-term challenge for automakers is how to participate more constructively and aggressively in the way customers choose their vehicles. It's a given that interactive marketing should represent a unique chance to take the one-to-one focus of direct marketing to the top of the funnel. But how? Much of the answer lies in dissecting the idea of "consideration."


The idea of a consideration set, the "short list" of cars a typical buyer considers before purchase, is well established. Much of the potential we see for 2006 comes from looking at consideration more broadly as the active process of weighing factual priorities and making emotional commitments.


Shoppers who are making a large-scale commitment like a car purchase move through several levels of consideration before signing on the dotted line. Each stage presents its own opportunities to engage them on an individual level and to bring new technologies and approaches into the mix.


Brand consideration. At the highest level, entire brands jockey for position in the shopper's mindset. Through digital channels, our opportunity is to move the brand-level discussion from the historical objective of awareness (a frustratingly passive term) to genuine consideration, where we put an aggressive argument for our brand in front of consumers. We should be offering each individual shopper his/her own way to fall in love with our brand before falling in love with a specific car.


Any ambitious brand site needs to lay out a clear argument for its values and benefits to help ambivalent shoppers sit back and say, "Huh. Didn't really think of you that way before." Beyond that shift, how do we get them to engage in a relationship with us - to raise their hands - without making them feel like we are trying to wrestle them into a car? We need to look at compelling upper-funnel calls to action that can acknowledge that someone's not in that "0-30 day" window yet keep the relationship going.


Nameplate consideration. Choosing nameplates typically has been the focus of the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) brand sites, but it's also paradoxically one of the weakest points for us in the consideration process. For one thing, much of the decision-making work at this stage occurs outside our brand sites, either on competitors' sites as the audience cross-shops or on third-party sites.


More to the point, not only have traditional OEM auto sites left aside overt brand consideration, they also have tended toward a passive role in nameplate consideration, jumping straight to the car smorgasbord approach: "Here's a bunch of vehicles. Why don't you just browse around and see if there's anything you like?"


You're either already interested in the brand and a vehicle, or an onslaught of photos and detailed why-buys needs to do the job implicitly. We need to focus on how to support the broad foraging that goes on at this stage, leading shoppers to the right vehicle rather than just hoping they'll find it.


Once they identify a preferred vehicle, the challenge becomes sustaining that interest between visits. For example, mobile technologies offer great opportunities. Imagine being able to configure a car online, but then mull over and toy with the colors, features and options through the display of a cell phone while you're on the train.


Feature/option consideration. After the consideration battle for a specific vehicle, the next opportunity lies in better supporting the choice of trim level and packages. Beyond a matrix with seven columns and 125 rows of N/A's, S's and O's, what can we offer shoppers to help them navigate the compromises they need to make ("Those wheels are only available on the Premier," "You can't get the moon roof and a DVD player," etc.)?


Too many people still have to shop features and packages with a pad next to the computer, taking notes. The next generation of brand sites needs to offer better interactive options where they can specify their requirements ("I've got to have AWD"), their preferences ("I'd like to have the premium sound system") and then judge the configurations that are available to them.


VIN-level consideration. Finally, we need to provide better, more integrated tools to keep buyers in touch with the car they're going to drive off the lot. Most sites now offer inventory tools. Though the dealer plays a large role in tracking down or picking the actual unit, there's a lot of ground to be made up in supporting the process. Even the ability to enter a vehicle identification number and see a customized, personalized site showcasing the exact configuration of colors and features as your new car would be a huge step forward.


The final challenge that lays over all this, of course, is bringing these pieces into a seamless whole so prospective buyers who come in through the top of the funnel can progress easily through picking a nameplate, a trim package and then finding a specific car without feeling like they're constantly interrupting one process and starting a different one.


Balance that seamlessness with someone else's ability to roll up his/her sleeves and jump directly into a deep level of detail consideration, without being distracted with needless brand messaging, and you just might have the next generation of auto brand Web site.


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