5 Things Auto Brands Can Teach You About Marketing Online

If you’re looking to gauge brands’ engagement with digital media, look no further than the automotive industry. Auto manufacturer campaigns can be used as a barometer for reading both online marketing trends and effective tactics, for several reasons. Auto brands represent a massive market. Borrell Associates forecasts that by the end of 2012, ad spending – both national and local – will have increased by 14 percent to reach $30.8 billion, making the automotive industry one of the biggest media buyers in the nation.

Many of those ad dollars end up online. Borrell predicts a 39 percent increase in online automotive media buys. By the end of the year, the company says, “40 cents of every auto ad dollar will be spent on digital media.” In other words, car companies know their digital advertising.

Over the years, automotive companies have brought us some unforgettable campaigns, from BMW’s short online film series “The Hire” to Audi’s alternate reality game “The Art of the Heist.” We can learn a thing or two from these marketing mavens, even if our own products have nothing to do with the open road.

1. Automakers don’t throw ads onto the web to see what sticks. They select their themes thoughtfully, and when something resonates with their customers they don’t often abandon it. Think of Volkswagen’s ongoing Das Auto tagline, originally launched back in 2007; the ubiquitous “Built Ford Tough” ads with their steel-plated logo; and Lexus’ recurring “December to Remember” holiday sales event. Don’t get hung up on always giving your customers something “fresh and new” if they’re responding to what you’ve already got.


2. Auto brands are fiercely consistent. Their online ads mirror their TV spots, which mirror their billboards, which mirror their ads in print. If it feels as though all commercials promoting cars look alike, you probably aren’t in-market for one. Consumers who are will likely notice each car ad has its own brand identity, and that identity is evident in every form of media that car buyers consume. When this strategy is employed, individual ads aren’t left to their own devices but buttressed by the power of the campaign as a whole. To borrow a line from Dr. Seuss: a banner finds the strength of 10 ads…plus two.

3. The automotive industry is a wheel with many spokes, and not all car campaigns serve the same purpose. Some are designed to familiarize consumers with new models. Others are meant to push in-market consumers further down the purchasing funnel. Consumer profiling and site segmentation allow auto brands to better determine which ads to serve to which potential customers, based on their proximity to making a purchase. Better targeted ads translate into a better response rate. That’s something all marketers are looking for, regardless of the nature of their product.

4. When automakers feature interactivity in their online ads, they do it in a way that adds value. Their ads engage because they give consumers something that’s both useful and personal. Even in the early days of digital media, car manufacturers embraced configuration tools that invited car shoppers to customize their ideal vehicle. It was the perfect way to inform them about new models and add-ons that could be customized. That’s online interaction with purpose, and it speaks to consumers. It’s like topping a pizza exactly the way you like it and putting it in the oven to bake. Just try resisting the urge to take a bite.

5. Automakers rely on online video to engage. Historically car manufacturers have devoted the bulk of their ad budgets to television, and have been reluctant to abandon this approach. Video, however, is a natural next step. According to research from Martini Media, 62 percent of auto companies plan to shift TV dollars to online media, and 95 percent believe that rich media is “as effective as TV advertising.” Companies with strong roots in offline should find the shift to online video easy, as long as they remember to keep online videos short and put them where they’re likely to be shared: on YouTube, on Facebook, or on the brand site.

Auto brands have cracked the code to online marketing. And they’ve done it by staying true to the strategies they honed offline.

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