According to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the automotive aftermarket parts industry had $34.58 billion in retail sales in 2005 and has grown by 32 percent since 2001. This rapid growth is driving an explosion of automotive enthusiast websites. CarDomain was recently joined in this realm by Yahoo Custom Autos, as well as a number of smaller sites that give automotive enthusiasts a place to get together online. Even Edmunds joined the fray earlier in the year with CarSpace, an automotive-themed social networking site.
What is an automotive enthusiast site?
An automotive enthusiast site enables this audience to do what they love most-- show off their cars and connect with like-minded car nuts. These sites allow members to set up pages to post pictures of their vehicles, along with descriptions of modifications and improvements they have made. Most sites also offer a system for rating and commenting on vehicles to foster interactivity and are rapidly adding social networking tools, including profile and photo tagging, blogs, instant messaging and forums. Some of the larger sites have thousands of pages featuring cars of all types. It's a terrific research tool for both vehicle and parts shopping. Fancy merchandising applications and intricate store displays pale in comparison to seeing actual installs on dozens of real-life vehicles with detailed notes on how the install went.
Why not just target car-themed pages on other social networking sites?
MySpace is a hot topic in the media these days. Its size ensures that it can represent just about every group of young consumers. Why wouldn't marketers go to MySpace, or other broadly reaching social networking sites, and rely on tag-targeting to uncover their audience?
The answer here is relevance. Even if an audience can be reached in a social networking site, the relevance of a message is eroded because people are social networking, not browsing pages and content with a strictly automotive theme. It is easier to engage an auto enthusiast with an auto-themed message when he or she is browsing vehicle profiles than it is to engage the same auto enthusiast while he or she looks for a date, party or checks up on friends. In order to have the biggest impact, a campaign should target relevant behavior and strike when the iron is hot.
Why should marketers care?
Automotive consumers love user-created content because it gives them an opportunity to see parts and accessories applied in a variety of ways. They can see photos and descriptions of the work involved in the project, and the resulting aesthetic or performance benefits. Automotive enthusiast sites give consumers a great place to plan and research projects for their own vehicles, and can inspire them to do something new.
For marketers, this provides a great opportunity to place a product or brand in front of consumers at a point in their purchasing process when they are very receptive to input. In contrast to at other user-created content sites, enthusiasts are more likely to treat their pages as a place to showcase their vehicles and their projects.
While there are inherent risks in any user-created site, the pages that get the most traffic tend to be those that do the best job of showcasing an interesting vehicle. People are on the site to see cool cars, so they tend to choose pages that do the best job of flattering a vehicle. For car manufacturers and aftermarket parts sellers, this means their cars and products will be shown by people who have a passion for their cars and are proud of everything in them.
What resonates with this audience?
As with any audience, the key to having an impact with auto enthusiasts is relevance and engagement. By targeting sites with a self-selected audience of car fanatics, marketers can take some of the guesswork out of making their campaign matter.
The first thing to keep in mind is that this is a lifestyle. The most effective campaigns rely heavily on using lifestyle imagery and copy to increase the relevance of the message, whether it is focused branding or an immediate call to action.
Take advantage of the medium. Your message will be appearing alongside testimonials from your best customers-- customers who are already doing much of your work for you. Reinforce their callouts about your products by aligning statements of benefits with recurring themes from customer pages, forums and editorial content. If you really want to be bold (and successful), tie the campaign into the grassroots theme of the site. Highlight vehicles from the site, build profile pages and link to them in advertising, or sponsor a contest that rewards members who can do the best job advocating for your brand. The best campaigns in this space leverage the community to increase the blast radius of the campaign.
Jason McDonald is director of research for Inside Track, a research division of CarDomain Network, Inc. Read full bio.