For Nissan, the third-largest Japanese automaker, which boasts the Altima, Sentra and Pathfinder in its fleet, 2008 has not been a banner year. US automobile sales have been on a downward slide, as consumers avoid car showrooms in the face of a declining economy and still-high gas prices. In fact, all of the major carmakers have seen double-digit dips in sales — even Nissan, for example, which saw positive sales success over the summer, was battered in September and in October announced a cut in production.
But the company has found its search marketing efforts to be a bright spot — an essential tool to stay on top of auto shoppers’ minds, especially as more and more consumers research cars online. “We used to group search under ‘nontraditional’ tactics — now it’s moved to a traditional core tactic that’s part of everything we do,” says Erich Marx, director of Nissan North America’s marketing communications. “Two or three years ago, we would have considered it kind of breakthrough. Now it’s a must-have.”
Search is an especially key element for Nissan, which is in a unique position because the company does not own the obvious URL, Nissan.com. Instead, Nissan’s main Web site is NissanUSA.com, which is not as easy for consumers to remember. “That’s why search is more important to Nissan than Toyota or BMW,” explains David Gedeon, owner of Premier Placement Media in Houston, which serves as Nissan’s paid search agency.
That doesn’t mean, however, that succeeding in auto search is simple, he emphasizes, pointing out that there has been increased search competition in the auto sector. “We’ve seen a shift in search behaviors where there’s not as many searches being performed in the auto vertical, so we’re seeing [automakers] fighting for those clicks more,” he says. “When there’s a decline in sales, there’s also a decline in search volume as well.”
The search landscape has changed over the years, adds Melissa Adams, senior manager of Nissan media, as more automakers have entered the search game. “When we first started doing search, our competitors were mostly third-party aggregators,” she says. Now, however, automakers understand that search is not just about direct response, but also about branding, she explains.
According to JupiterResearch, Internet-generated new car sales will grow from 5.1 million in 2007 to 7.7 million in 2012. It also reported that in 2007, 70% of new car buyers researched their purchases online, an increase of 5% from the previous year. “That really means that visibility, whether it is through natural or paid search, is of utmost importance as auto companies are battling for a very decreasing share of the market,” says Domingos Viera, VP of automotive at search agency iCrossing, whose recent study, Vertical Visibility Index: Automotive, analyzed paid and organic/natural search media visibility. Nissan North America, along with Chrysler and GM, were judged as the automakers doing the best job of using a synergistic approach to search marketing.
“The iCrossing study really validated our approach,” says Adams. “The most important thing is we want to make sure we’re working holistically and together with natural search — we know from empirical data that we get the best return on investment when both paid and natural search are optimized.”
Organic, paid search work together
Nissan’s organic search efforts begin with what’s relevant in the marketplace, such as key search terms, explains Scot Cottick, Nissan’s senior manager of marketing communications, interactive. “Those reflect what’s important to us – it’s upon the Web team to use those as a filter to make sure they have appropriate places to land on the Web,” he says. For all search terms, he adds, there is a relative landing page.
For paid search, Nissan uses “a tiered approach – national efforts, regional efforts and local dealer efforts,” says Gedeon. “Right now we’re going after general segment keywords on a national level – such as crossover, fuel-efficient cars – as well as branding.” He adds that Nissan is buying more search terms related to fuel economy. “We’re certainly focusing on fuel-efficiency as a common message across most of our vehicles,” he explains. “Our researchers are telling us that customers are looking for a good, practical choice, so we’re trying to align our search terms with providing that promise.”
Nissan’s ongoing search campaigns are meant to tie in with marketing efforts in other channels, he continues, because as sales drop it is more important than ever to make it as easy for consumers to find the brand and interact. “The goal is for us to have synergy between all Nissan’s agencies, whether you have a home page buy or a TV commercial,” he says. “We’re just making sure all media are speaking the same language, that one single message is being portrayed.”
That means search marketing campaigns have become a day-to-day part of Nissan’s marketing strategy. “It’s part of our daily menu of how we go to market,” says Marx. “In the past, we may have had a specific campaign aligned with a launch of a new vehicle, but now it’s part of the market process, part of everything we do day in and day out.”
Adams agrees, suggesting that with so much auto shopping happening in the marketplace, it is “short-sighted” for a company not to be there for the consumer when they are searching. “Search closes the loop on all of our marketing efforts,” she says. “It’s very powerful.”