A close examination of the online behavior of auto shoppers by Forrester Research found that the $1 billion that automakers, dealers and independent auto sites spend in an effort to convert browsers to buyers may be missing the mark.
Forrester analyzed three months of continuous online behavior data and buyer-reported purchase data provided by comScore Networks. To find the correlation between online shopping behavior and car buying, Forrester observed 78,000 individual consumers’ paths through 170 auto sites and interviewed 17 auto site owners and software providers. It found that behavior patterns such as frequency and intensity of research sessions and cross-site comparison-shopping were strong purchase predictors.
To effectively select serious car buyers from the millions of site visitors, Forrester found that auto site owners must correlate car buyers’ unique multisite shopping behavior to near-term (within three months) vehicle purchases. By tracking individual users, Forrester found it could find users likely to buy.
The theory of a “marketing funnel” doesn’t map to actual car buyer behavior, the research found. Conventional wisdom suggests that shoppers first visit information sites, then OEMs, then online retailers or dealer sites as they go from awareness to interest, desire and action. But after mapping consumer data, Forrester found a messier, more complex consideration process.
“Common assumptions about customer behavior when shopping for vehicles online are wrong,” said Mark Dixon Bünger, senior analyst at Forrester. “For example, loyalty and repeat visits are actually an anti-predictor of purchase. Most people who buy come in short, intense bursts and don’t hang out on auto sites.
Repeat visitors to auto sites are rare. Sixty-four percent of all buyers complete their research in five sessions or less. Roughly one in four auto site visitors buys a car within three months. While independent sites remain popular with consumers, OEM sites have surpassed them with a 59 percent increase in traffic in 2001.
Forrester segments auto site visitors into four distinct car buying profiles:
- Explorers. Car buying is a journey of discovery for them, and they need a guided tour. Despite their small numbers, nearly half buy their new vehicle within 63 days. Forrester suggests creating user guides to lead them through a convenient, explicit buying process — explaining competitive advantages each step of the way.
- Offroaders. These visitors climb mountains of research into showrooms, but 34 percent walk out with new keys. Forrester says dealers need to respond quickly to their urgent requests for quotes by providing separate lead channels based on proven predictors of purchase — such as number of configurations, comparisons, and page views — to alert dealers to buyers who are in-market and need quick follow-up.
- Drive-bys. These shoppers visit five sites or fewer, making their behavior much more of a mystery. They are the largest segment of automotive site visitors, but only 20 percent buy. Site owners should think beyond their Web sites to reach this group by implementing online ad-placement referral strategies that can help them track where these single-session visitors are coming from and what their interests are.
- Cruisers. They are frequent visitors, but only 15 percent buy a car in the short term. As true car buffs, they’re likely to be important influencers. Site owners can learn from them and should encourage their participation in online panels and surveys.
“Car buyers’ paths illustrate the multisite consumer experience, and each brand’s buyers are different,” Bünger said. “We recommend using carbuyers’ paths to improve the bottom line by using proprietary data and combining it with data from outside organizations. This will lead to a better understanding of buyer behavior, improved payback from CRM investments, and a more harmonious customer organization.”