So far, marketing cars online has largely been an exercise in lead generation. Dealers apply the same techniques they've employed offline for decades -- the "come on down!" approach -- using creative ways to get consumers from the internet into their showrooms. But this temptation to simply consider the internet as just another source for leads overlooks its potential for something far more effective-- the ability to bring the showroom to consumers.
Think about it: consumers are used to being able to find items and make purchases online, immediately. Whether it's clothes, jewelry, home electronics or travel plans, they've grown accustomed to clicking their way to a closed deal from the comfort of home or work.
Here comes the knee-jerk response: cars, it's always argued, are different. And in many ways that's true. Indeed, before a purchase people want to test drive, kick the tires, sit in the bucket seats and get a feel for the car. But what happens then? Very few people buy their automobiles on an impulse. By the time they're ready to buy, most already have completed a significant amount of research -- including the test drives -- elsewhere.
When they're ready to buy, they want the price on the exact model and configuration they've chosen-- and they want it immediately; they want to compare and they want more than a promise of a call-back or an email later-- they want confirmation that the precise car they want is sitting in the lot at the dealership down the street. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: not seeing the exact car they want on a particular dealership's website might not lose the sale for that dealer at this stage of the online car buying evolution, but if a competitor does show a potential customer that exact car, with all the right options, at a guaranteed price-- that dealership will certainly win the sale.
J.D. Power and Associates says that 67 percent of new-car buyers conduct research online. Dealerships have an opportunity to win their business by taking consumers beyond information-gathering to a point just shy of the close of the sale-- all before the consumer even sets foot in the showroom for the actual purchase.
The most significant step dealers can take in this direction is making their new-car inventory available on the internet. Realize that cars have become a commodity-- marketing and selling new cars no longer depends on getting people to the dealership. It's about providing accurate, robust new-car data online, and enabling consumers to find the exact car they want in a dealer's inventory, along with an upfront guaranteed price.
What kind of data am I talking about? Everything. Tell the consumer as much online as you would in the showroom:
- Every car in inventory
- Detailed specifications, options and colors available
- An upfront, guaranteed price
- Financing options
Give the consumer more than he or she can get from the manufacturer's website. For the buyer, it's one thing to know what options are available for the new BMW M6. It's another thing entirely to know that down the street there's a black 2007 convertible BMW M6, with leather seats and equipped for Sirius satellite radio-- ready to drive off the lot today.
The fine print
So here's where we bump up against the challenge. How do dealers get all of this data online and, beyond that, keep it updated? That's first and foremost a technology question-- and the good news is that emerging platforms like Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) are making this easier than ever.
But the required technology investment still is often more extensive and ambitious than any one organization can create and deploy on its own. So, many dealerships are opting to participate in progressive car buying programs through trusted affinity groups-- tapping into sophisticated technology that allows them to make their inventories available online.
The bottom line is that there's a direct correlation between the accuracy and completeness of data provided electronically and the number of cars dealers sell. The traditional "come on down" approach to dealer advertising doesn't fully exploit the internet's potential for driving consumers closer to the actual sale-- while they're still online.
Dealers can't fully take advantage of the internet as a marketing and sales tool until they embrace the web as more than just a brochure for the dealership itself. It should be an extension of their showrooms, where they offer just as much detail about individual cars online as they would in person.
Scott Painter is CEO of Zag, Inc. .