What is the role of digital marketing in the automotive sector? The automobile is personal. It’s not just because it’s an essential, or, in some cases, completely indispensable asset, nor because we actually spend a lot of time in them (for the daily commute or the occasional road trip). The vehicle is personal, perhaps above all, because it represents us. Our choice of automobile says a lot about who we are in the world; it reflects our tastes and attitudes, our values, or our aspirations. It is also a status symbol. We can say this about very few products on the market.

So, if the automobile is inherently personal, how “personal” should those key aspects of the customer journey (marketing, sales, customer experience, customer service) be when we purchase a vehicle? 

This is a question that should be asked by car brands, dealers, and retailers alike. And given the advent of digital transformation, it is an important question. Based on the current market trends that we’re seeing today, we already know the answer: yes, definitely, personalization must become the central point of any Digital Marketing and Customer Care strategy in the sector. It’s a complex challenge, but it’s also full of opportunities.

In this post, we’ll address the importance of the one-to-one approach, focusing on all phases of the Customer Journey, from online search, through to the point of purchase from retailers, to the decisive service phases (and we’ll see why they are so decisive). Before we get started, it’s worthwhile to highlight a key point: the process of buying a car is very detailed, with many interconnected parts, and it develops through different channels and touchpoints over a long period of time.

Consider the findings of a study carried out by ACA Research (you can find it here): the “journey” of a car buyer can last from 5 to 12 weeks, and it develops, on average, in this way:

  • A first phase of online research where the future buyer creates a list of vehicles and brands of interest.
  • They then narrow the selection down to a short-list, often based on opinions and reviews (also largely collected online).
  • Then it’s time for the test drive.
  • And finally, the final choice.

A good digital marketing strategy in the Automotive sector, focused on personalization, must therefore start from here: from the awareness of this long and complex path. In essence, it is a matter of being ready in the right place, at the right time, and, above all, in the right channel: and all these factors vary depending on the person to whom you are addressing. In this post, we’ll analyze and subdivide the possible strategies in three different moments: the search, the moment of purchase, and management of the service.


Inspiration and research: the beginning of the “Journey”

As we mentioned, the Customer Journey in the automotive industry is complex and diverse. Without a doubt, the most articulated (and even more prolonged over time) phases are those of inspiration and research; phases that take place mainly online.

So how can we meet the possible customer in these rather chaotic and unsystematic moments? For the answer, we look to advanced data-driven marketing strategies.

Here, it’s time to follow the digital traces of your potential target; translated: it’s about analyzing “Big Data.” And this isn’t an easy operation. You’ll need to find data in the right places, from an omnichannel point of view, and, you need to be able to interpret the data according to one’s own objectives. To put it another way: you will be looking for information at a more qualitative, rather than quantitative, level. And here we are, back to personalization. The objective is to go beyond segmentation and clustering, to isolate the characteristics, behaviors, and needs of individuals, and how these change over time.

Let’s look at an example. According to a search by Millward Brown Digital for Google (source: Thinkwithgoogle), about 70% of people view videos on YouTube in the very early stages of the purchase process. Today, companies can exploit the medium of the video by combining it with personalization. Not a one-to-many communication, but a one-to-one, tailored to the person in front of you, built on their characteristics, and interactive, which adapts to the user, even in real time.


Purchasing Stages in a digital marketing strategy for the Automotive sector

At the end of the long phase of online research, we come to the purchase. Here too, digital marketing plays a fundamental role; and here too, personalization is, increasingly, the key to everything, also for retailers and dealers.

Let’s start from some data that emerged from a recent study by the digital marketing firm Affinitiv. In the survey, 76% of people identified a personalized retail experience, starting from their websites, as “very important.” In contrast, only 26% of retailers themselves actually take advantage of personalization. In short, the road is still long; and many of the opportunities are still there, ready to be seized.

According to Doug Van Sach, Affinitiv’s Vice President, Strategy & Analytics, “The website is often the first point of contact with a dealership, but most dealer websites were built using unsophisticated technologies that reflect an antiquated notion of how consumers buy cars. To meet customer expectations, auto retailers must evolve their shopping experience to match the precedent set by retailers in other industries.”

If this is the picture on the dealer front, there are car manufacturers, on the other hand, who are taking decisive steps towards the most advanced technology and, therefore, towards personalization.

One example is BMW, who recently created an application based on personalization. It is called “BMW Individual” and shows the various models with all possible options and customizations, and, through interactive and tailor-made storytelling, pushes the user to create his own “Individual Automobile Story”. Of course, BMW is not the only automotive brand pushing in the direction of one-to-one dialog. The same, for example, is happening with Mercedes; in this case, digital storytelling is pushed to the point of integrating customizable “Augmented Reality” elements.


Service and personalization: Where loyalty lives

Does the Customer Journey in the Automotive sector end with the purchase of a vehicle? No, far from it. On the contrary, the next stage, the use of the car, with ordinary and extraordinary maintenance, is, in many ways, the most decisive.

To realize this, first of all, you have to be aware of a very important and significant fact: the customer takes, on average, 15 hours to purchase a car. On the other hand, 50 hours are invested in service processes. According to a survey by McKinsey, when buying a new car, the consumer’s experience is more decisive for the consumer than that of the previous purchase.

We now understand why these steps are so decisive, both for the car manufacturer and the dealer. It is above all here, within customer service, that companies must focus to improve engagement and, consequently, consolidate loyalty. Of course, in the final analysis, all marketing processes and the brand image itself (both car manufacturers and retail players) will benefit.

So, what is the most effective strategy (digital, but not only) to improve service and make the relationship between customer and brand (or retailer) more fluid and efficient? Again, personalization. One of the oldest and most effective strategies of commerce takes new life thanks to the most powerful technologies made available by digital transformation. 


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