Digital marketers’ strategy can focus on reaching those now in-market to buy or lease, and comparatively pitching a given model or sale. - IMAGE: Pexels/Tima Miroshnichenko

Digital marketers’ strategy can focus on reaching those now in-market to buy or lease, and comparatively pitching a given model or sale.

IMAGE: Pexels/Tima Miroshnichenko

Not that long ago, dealerships and auto marketers had a clear first action to turn prospects into car owners: Get them into the showroom. The key to making a sale was having prospects see and touch the gleaming new cars and test-drive the latest models and associated features. Once they drive, they buy.

But now it’s a whole new ballgame.

According to the National Auto Dealers Association, more than 90% of potential car buyers begin their car-shopping journey by researching their choices online – comparing features, safety profiles, pricing and more. Customers are spending, on average, 14 to 17 hours investigating car brands and models before they even talk to a dealer or step into a showroom. By the time they do chat with a dealership, it’s not uncommon for shoppers to know more about a given model than the salesperson.

For dealerships, shoppers’ quests for knowledge about certain brands and models means they are eager for information – and savvy auto marketers investing in digital marketing can provide the right info at the right time in their customer journey.

A Multichannel Campaign

Due to the change in customer behavior, coupled with more precise targeting and attribution capabilities, digital marketing – such as website ads, tailored emails, chat sessions with knowledgeable bots or live agents, or ads on connected TV – can find and address the specific needs of would-be customers. Digital marketing becomes a central component of a multichannel campaign for dealerships, complemented by manufacturer linear advertising on broadcast TV, billboards or in print.

Half of all car shoppers are ready to buy or lease within 30 days, according to, but only slightly more than a quarter have decided exactly which model they want. This means that digital marketers’ strategy can focus on two factors: reaching those now in-market to buy or lease, and comparatively pitching a given model or sale.

Higher up in the marketing funnel, auto shoppers who are months away from a buy decision might be more receptive to messages about how a brand supports their lifestyles. Further down the funnel, a dealership might emphasize its service package to distinguish itself from regional competitors as the shopper is just about ready to buy.

Lone gone are the days when the prime directive was to get prospects into the showroom. Today’s initial imperative is getting shoppers to the dealership’s website. Once there, the key objective is enticing prospects to fill out a form that can lead to a follow-up phone call, text or a trip to the showroom. If the site recognizes a previous customer, it can offer personalized information and support that helps to grow the relationship.

Blended Evolutionary Approach

In general terms, the auto marketer’s strategic tasks these days – creating and capturing demand – is not that dissimilar from days past. The big difference is that demand can be, and often is, created and captured online.

Even auto purchase decisions can be made, and vehicles delivered, without a car lot. Some companies – such as Carvana, CarMax and Cars Direct – have virtually eliminated the physical showroom.

But that evolutionary branch may be changing toward a blend. While Carvana, for instance, has struggled financially, some traditional dealerships, like Lithia Motors – one of the largest owners of physical dealerships – are refocusing around a digital pathway that blends a Carvana-like approach with traditional car lots. Lithia’s DriveWay leverages one key fact about this industry: Cars are not digital, so you can’t really experience the product until you sit inside it.

And you have an advantage if you have a sizable servicing infrastructure.

Inventory Flow

In addition to a reworking of the sales process, the pandemic has forced dealerships to reimagine how their inventory is handled. Many dealerships, for instance, find that desirable vehicles like hybrids are now often presold before they reach the lot.

The inventory flow, then, becomes linked to how well the marketing funnel, driven by digital marketing, handles the movement of prospects from awareness to consideration, research, comparison shopping, decision-making, test-driving (if any), and sale.

In some ways, the emerging sales flow for cars isn’t that different from, say, modern grocery shopping. Young shoppers in particular are commonly researching and ordering online, and then either having the orders delivered or picking them up at the store. While traditional shoppers still go into the grocery store to shop and buy, the order online/pickup-or-deliver habit appears here to stay.

Any product that can be delivered online or shipped to your door can largely be sold remotely. But customer journeys to buy or lease a car, even if they take place mostly digitally, will always favor sellers that have the best, most accurate, insights to engage along the car shopper’s journey.