Dave Winslow is chief digital strategist for Dealer.com, an automotive industry marketing firm. About 40 percent of the company’s clients are franchised dealers, so Winslow is responsible for staying ahead of the technological advancements and societal shifts that affect their ability to connect with customers. It’s a task he says he enjoys. Auto Dealer Monthly sat down with Winslow at Dealer.com’s Manhattan Beach, Calif., offices to learn more about how dealers and customers will connect in 2014 and beyond.
ADM: Much of your job centers around staying abreast of the major advertising trends. Going into 2014, what are some of the biggest changes auto dealers will likely be facing?
Winslow: There are two major trends right now. One is real-time bidding, which allows an advertiser, through an ad technology platform, to buy across all the ad networks — Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Facebook. Instead of placing a bid to one of them and accepting a price, you end up placing multiple bids for an ad placement, and then whichever one has the best price with the best targeting options, the machine learning technology — mathematical algorithms and software devoted to performing certain types of tasks — will determine that bid.
It’s kind of a moving media buy in this capacity, from an individual purchasing those media placements, to letting an algorithm driven by machine learning place that bid. What it allows us to do is place thousands of ads simultaneously and reach the exact consumer at the right time with the right message. It’s making the media buy much more efficient.
ADM: Are there any technology trends that concern you?
Winslow: Cookies have typically been the primary source of technology used to personalize [the online experience], but there’s been a lot of fanfare in the industry about whether cookies will continue to exist. Firefox has tried to remove cookies entirely, which would not only change the personalization for consumers, but ad targeting as well. So we’re always looking into … what the macro trends are for personalization, and then adapting our products.
We’re pretty fluid in how we would allow users to personalize their experience over time.
ADM: Dealer.com recently launched MyCars, which allows customers to personalize their shopping experience. It essentially organizes what the online visitor has viewed on a dealer’s website, and can save the information from their session. Tell us what this launch means company- and industrywide.
Winslow: A big focus right now is personalization across multiple devices. Basically, we’re seeing more and more use of multiple devices. You can traverse from a desktop at work, to a mobile device on the train home, to a tablet while watching TV. The goal is to make sure there is a seamless connection across all three so the dealership’s brand is consistent.
We’re also digging into the personalization of all those devices. If I start looking at a set of cars on my desktop computer at work and then, later that night, I’m on my tablet, and I go back and visit that dealer’s website — we’re personalizing that experience so they don’t start the shopping process over again.
ADM: Are there many variations from dealer to dealer as to how each business is incorporating personalization on their website?
Winslow: It’s pretty standard across dealers. We use the best-case setups across all industries, so not just automotive. It’s looking at how consumers are shopping and creating personalized experiences across Amazon, Google and other major web properties out there. We’ll always follow suit to the best of our ability, based on what consumers are doing, and then tailor that to automotive and dealerships as needed; but the technology tends to be pretty consistent in how it’s used by the dealership.
ADM: We hear a lot about the “shift to digital” for marketers, but where exactly in digital are those advertising dollars going?
Winslow: Most companies are taking existing broadcast mediums like TV and republishing the content through the emergence of online video, such as YouTube. Even radio is moving online, to sites like Pandora. So it’s a lot of the same messaging in some ways, but through new mediums. I think we’ll see a shift to these digital mediums more than anything.
ADM: Currently, there’s an aggressive push for online retailing in many industries. Do you think this business model will satisfy the needs of car buyers?
Winslow: Although that might be an experiment, as we go into 2014, we’re seeing strong evidence that consumers still want to go to a dealership. They still want to touch the car, they want to test drive it and be better in tune with it. I think you might find some cases where a consumer is comfortable purchasing a vehicle online, but I think it will probably be more of a minority.
It’s not like a computer or a jacket you would purchase on Amazon and you can just send back if you’re not happy with it. Typically when you buy a car, it’s your car and you don’t go exchange it the next week.
It’s one thing for technology to progress at a rapid pace, but it can never get ahead of what the consumer’s comfort level is. I think consumers are going to continue to be comfortable shopping and researching online, but the transaction will fall within the dealerships directly.
ADM: Is there anything else standing in customers’ way of obtaining that comfort level?
Winslow: Even post-transaction, when you purchase a car, your relationship with that dealership is going to extend much longer. We’ve seen dealerships become more progressive in the parts and service business. Most cars today come with strong warranty programs that encourage customers to bring their car back for regular service intervals. So the bond between a dealer and consumer is only going to grow over time. When the service appointment comes up, it’s a continued experience, not their first experience.
ADM: Speaking of service, many dealers are setting up separate websites for their service departments. Is this a practice you endorse?
Winslow: We see more dealerships advertising their service departments through search advertising [and] display advertising to create the awareness. They’re doing more promotions on their sales floors to educate consumers that the service department is right there, that it’s part of the dealership. We believe the whole experience should be integrated together, so a dealership should come across as a single entity.
Offering new cars, used cars, service, parts and finance all within the same website, providing information and services about all five of these different profit centers … We see it becoming more of a cross-marketing function within a dealership. [There’s a] better understanding [that] if you’re coming up on your lease or if you’ve only owned your car for a certain amount of time, you can automatically target customers to the service department.
ADM: Dealers have access to increasingly sophisticated tools that rely on the collection of information from customers. Customers are doing everything they can to keep their information private. Where does the balance lie?
Winslow: The macro conditions really dictate that more than anything. On one side of the spectrum, you have Silicon Valley giants like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft pushing for innovation, going to cookie-less tracking through user identification. If you think about it, between Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, they touch the vast majority of Americans that are online. So they have one source of the data.
And then on the other coast, you have legislation from Washington that is trying to protect consumers from too much information being used to target ads. So I think in the middle you’ll find that there will always be a safe environment for consumers overall. But I think we’re going to see better insights into consumer activity, which will lead to better targeted advertisements, which will be to the benefit of the consumer — and that is a good thing. Most consumers want to see ads that are relevant to them and are willing to give up a little privacy to do so.