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Carmakers, get behind the wheel of the Web

Digital marketing is a concept many automakers and dealers are largely ignoring at the expense of their customers. This is a new consumer dynamic with a new set of expectations about the online car-buying process driven by consumer technology. Unfortunately, the auto industry has yet to scratch this concept’s surface. 

It is nearly a month since the industry’s most important event of the year in China – the Auto Shanghai 2013. In the past few years, these international car shows, which have been hosted alternately by two of China’s largest cities of Shanghai and Beijing, have inspired Chinese consumers to buy cars and help automakers and dealers increase profits.

But behind the scenes of these auto shows is a change in the way drivers are buying their vehicles, with manufacturers and dealers scrambling to match emerging demand.

Our research demonstrates how car buyers depend more and more on the Internet to make up their minds. It simply makes good business sense for companies to put as much effort into developing an effective and interactive digital marketing platform – equal, in fact, to the effort given to create attractive physical presentations at car shows and successful brick-and-mortar enterprises.

In many cases, carmakers and dealers are dropping the ball.

China is the world’s largest auto market and it has more than 564 million Internet users, by far the biggest total worldwide, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Increasingly, the first stop for many car buyers is not the dealer showroom, but the Internet.

While conventional wisdom would suggest that car-buying websites help spur sales, a survey of 3,000 drivers in China conducted by Accenture found consumers want content on auto industry websites more highly customized to their specific car-buying needs. In the survey, those polled said such changes would make the process simpler and faster.

Of the consumers surveyed who said they research car purchases online before buying a vehicle, 76 percent first visit at least six or more websites while 10 percent said they need to browse more than 20 websites to acquire enough information to make a decision. Seventy-three percent said the current digital marketing platforms among automakers and dealers drive them to use more traditional offline media for information required to make their choices.

A main source of consumer discontent is their belief that the auto industry is not keeping pace with websites offered by other sectors. Of the respondents, three-quarters feel that the auto industry significantly lags behind other retail sectors in the use of digital media tools, such as video and 360-degree online tours. Making better use of digital marketing will only complement their business models and could yield a 1-2 percent increase in topline sales for the industry.

Findings from the survey offer a roadmap manufacturers and dealers in China should follow to enhance their digital marketing efforts. Seventy-four percent favor a process that will enable them to obtain more simplified information online, while 76 percent would like the comparison process simplified. One finding that might surprise the industry is that 70 percent want the ability to chat online with a dealer.

The overwhelming majority (80 percent) wish they were able to compare features and options available across the same automaker’s product line, while 84 percent would like easier and clearer pricing to help expedite the purchasing process. Three-quarters of those polled want dealers to provide them with a simpler way to configure a vehicle.

Consumers not only want a better interactive online experience, but better integration between online and offline sales divisions to facilitate the process of visiting the Internet to completing the purchase in the showroom. Eighty-two percent of the respondents believe improved auto websites would significantly reduce the time needed to purchase a vehicle.

Finally, some shoppers from the survey would be willing to bypass the intertwined online-offline sales process. Given the opportunity, 35 percent would consider having the option of making the purchase completely online, including financing, negotiating prices, other paperwork and home delivery.

This currently may not be possible. But, if such a scenario were to become feasible, it would augment and help showroom performances, not hinder it, if more forward thinking in the industry grabbed this opportunity.

The survey shows a consistent customer experience is vital to the online-offline sales process, an area the auto industry is falling behind compared with other sectors in the eyes of the consumer.

It is clear that consumers want better online support, advice and personalization when buying a car, with consistent handoffs to the dealer when they are ready to visit the showroom. At a time when digital marketers are utilizing algorithms to predict what online visitors want to know, automakers and dealers need to better shape Web content to give consumers what they want online and effectively integrate that experience with their brick-and-mortar operations.

The Chinese auto market is still growing, but the industry’s growth rate has slowed to between 4-8 percent over the past two years. By contrast, the number of car dealerships in the nation has exponentially grown in number. Intensifying competition is driving down auto dealers’ sales and profits. Shoppers, on the other hand, have a better understanding of how to effectively research and purchase cars and are much more sophisticated than before about what they expect from a car.

To survive in a competitive and rapidly evolving market, it is time for automakers and car dealers in China to get up to the speed with social media, the Internet and mobile devices to attract customers in a smarter and more effective way.

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