Lexus used virtual reality, augmented reality, and other advanced digital marketing tools to “premarket” the LC 500, helping to exceed initial sales targets by more than 5%. - Photo courtesy...

Lexus used virtual reality, augmented reality, and other advanced digital marketing tools to “premarket” the LC 500, helping to exceed initial sales targets by more than 5%.

Photo courtesy Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Just a few years ago, online car shopping followed a fairly simple model: Dealers would list inventory on their websites and share vehicle data and images with third-party listing services so consumers could easily find the car they were looking to buy. This is no doubt efficient for the consumer, but the digital experience and consumer expectations are rapidly changing, and the model of inventory listings and thumbnails is dying out.

Due to the rapid advances in digital marketing across all devices and consumer categories over the last few years, the average in-market customer now expects an end-to-end, immersive, and convenient digital experience. More and more, consumers are using digital channels to research, configure, and compare vehicles and dealers — especially the hard-to-capture young, urban, high-income customer.

The result is that prospective customers walk onto your lot much better informed about your products and pricing than the typical buyer of just a few years ago.

Unfortunately, most dealerships are missing out on the digital buyer’s journey. The need to effectively attract and entice customers via digital channels and deliver an engaging online digital experience to customers has become paramount. Change in the entire car-buying experience is happening now, and it’s a competitive change.

In other words, for dealers who are willing to embrace this new era of digital content marketing, the upsides are significant.

Make the Connection

What consumers are looking for in today’s car shopping market is a coherent end-to-end experience. This is largely being led by automakers, who are providing end-to-end tools for their dealer networks to leverage. The dealers who embrace these tools raise their chances of gaining not only new customers, but customers who are happier with their car-buying experience.

Automakers know the dealer experience of the past is a problem. They are providing modern tools to help advance the sales experience. Many are providing web assets to their dealer networks which mimic manufacturer sites, providing continuity in the web experience to the customer — an important connection that is imperative in this digital world.

Tangibly, Audi has embraced these technologies, where the customer can configure a vehicle online, receive a code to take to the dealer, and have the vehicle they configured brought up right at the dealership in both a configurator and VR experience.

For dealers, this means more symmetrical information a greater chance of upselling dealer-installed, high-margin services and accessories. The advantage of knowing what a consumer wants before or when they arrive in the showroom allows the sales department to better profile their preferences so that the customer can be more easily steered to a sale.

Hit the Retarget

Automakers also can retarget customers with their configured car, effectively reengaging them on the dealer’s behalf.

Lexus has also effectively used digital assets, including VR and AR, with proven results. They effectively “premarketed” the LC 500 before the vehicle was even in production. The result was a 5%-plus increase over targeted sales for the vehicle’s first two months on sale.

Smartphone apps are also providing AR experiences that allow a customer to see their configured car in their driveway or garage. Again, this is a tool to increase leads to local dealers and ultimately convert into sales.

By embracing these technologies, dealers can participate in the customer engagement process and then provide an even deeper engagement at the store, ultimately converting more leads into sales.

As technology advances and digital marketing evolve, consumers will invariably expect a convenient, consistent, tailored experience from end-to-end. Those who are leveraging digital marketing technology are setting themselves up for a competitive advantage now and into the future.

The question is this: Do you want to drive change, or have change happen to you?

Tim McDonough is general manager of automotive at Unity Technologies and 25-year automotive marketing veteran.