Driven to Personalize: Optimization and the Auto Industry

Optimization in the auto industry is truly unique — and can be a real game-changer when it comes to moving the needle in this high-value vertical. Kaela Cusack, a Senior Optimization Consultant at Adobe, moderated a round table with some of Adobe’s own leaders in the field, tackling online/offline opportunities and challenges head on. Their conversation highlights what’s most important in the current marketplace and offers some unique insights for brands and marketers in auto and beyond.

Kaela Cusack: What are some of the challenges facing the auto industry today, as it relates to optimization and even digital marketing?

Aaron Graham, Senior Optimization Consultant: When you’re talking about digital marketing and optimization, you’re going to be set up for success if you can get to a primary success metric — this is what we want to drive. And you want this to be as closely correlated to conversion or a sale — whatever generates revenue for the industry. In auto, it’s a bit challenging. At the highest level, automakers are trying to find a visitor that’s interested in a particular make and model, and then take them to the next step, which is getting them to a dealership. So unlike other industries, when you’re talking about auto, the optimization and personalization you’re doing can be great, but it’s still pretty removed from the actual act of buying a car.

Steve O’Neill, Senior Optimization Consultant: To build on that, it’s really about building the bridge between intent and driving consumers to a dealer’s lot. Many makers are pushing prospective buyers to get a quote directly on their website — that’s been really important and really effective in many cases. But what Aaron says is a real challenge — you can drive conversion on the website, but what does it mean for bottom-line sales?

How long do you keep someone in the get-a-quote funnel? If you look across all of the auto sites, there are a lot of different kinds of funnels with varying numbers of steps. There are lots of testing and optimization opportunities — what works for your customers? What gets more people to fill out that form to get a quote?

Bill Ozinga, Senior Optimization Consultant: The ultimate goal is always to have a prospective buyer contact a dealer. But we can also optimize many of the steps outside of that. Maybe it’s pushing people toward financing options or toward building their own cars — the steps people will likely take before making the big purchase.

So, there’s building a car with a configurator, there’s a financing piece, there’s a quote, and there’s contacting a dealer — but is there one “megametric” out there? Are any of your clients using an aggregate engagement score?

Bill: We’re using a megametric with a client right now. We started with the single biggest conversion metric, then looked at everything else through that lens — what was contributing to their ultimate goal, getting the customer to the dealer. Basically, every action was scored — maybe contacting a dealer was 10 points, building your car was 5, looking at features could be 2 or 3. This gave the automaker a total customer value and engagement score, which has been extremely valuable — I know this client has been very happy with the results and how it’s enabled them to optimize the entire experience in the most meaningful way possible. We’re still optimizing each piece and pushing toward the conversion — getting them to the dealer — but it paints a really strong, holistic picture.

That’s a great example of aggregating success into a single score. It sounds like there are lots of different goals of the site — educating, motivating people to act, getting people to take next steps. Are there any other challenges that you’re working to overcome through testing and optimization?

Steve: A big one is around price. Automakers’ and dealers’ websites are always showing two different prices, the MSRP and the lease price. But dealers can always beat those prices — which is another incentive to get people to the dealership. The challenge, though, is that there are regulations around what prices you can show on a website — even though the dealer almost always beats the MSRP or the promotional price by $1,000, you can’t put that on the website. So what do you do?

We’ve tested some solutions to see how we can move the needle and push people further down the sales funnel and on to the dealership. We tested hiding some of the prices, for example, to see if people go further. It’s definitely a balance because we don’t want to frustrate anyone by withholding information — but it’s a good potential optimization tactic if we can strike that balance.

So having a complex pricing model — that sounds like a unique opportunity for this industry. What others?

Bill: Personalization is a big one too. There’s a huge difference in vehicle types and price ranges, plus different characteristics from one manufacturer to another, so what works with one vehicle or client might not work with another. SUV buyers are different from sports car buyers who are different from people buying hybrid or electric cars. There are so many different goals and motivations, so leveraging strong personalization tactics and best practices can make a big difference in engagement and conversion — more so than many other industries.

Aaron: If you compare auto-industry clients to other types of clients — media, ecommerce — their range of products is really narrow. Maybe they sell five or 10 different core vehicles. A buyer is probably only interested in two or three models — if they’re a sports car enthusiast, for instance, they likely aren’t looking at a truck, too. So there’s definitely less of a risk involved by observing a consumer’s behavior on the site and using that to reinforce the experiences you deliver. If I looked at this car, there’s likely little value in showing me a different one.

Bill: But at the same time, there’s interesting competition. Like Aaron said, because the range of vehicles one manufacturer offers is so narrow, buyers aren’t usually comparing models within one automotive brand. Instead, they’re looking at this particular make and model as well as the competitor’s equivalent. It’s important for buyers to understand the different levels you offer — what’s the difference between this model and this manufacturer’s competitor’s model? And how do you keep buyers within your brand experience when they’re likely shopping around?

Aaron: It’s a great point. In my own experience, a company doesn’t openly compare themselves to the competition. But, clearly, people go to the various sites that let them compare across manufacturers. If a manufacturer or dealer is willing to take the risk, there’s opportunity there, both to try to maintain buyers’ attentions — maybe even upsell them, to some extent — and to highlight the benefits of your make and model over the competitor’s.

So, it sounds like there are opportunities to personalize on many different levels. When people go to a manufacturer’s site, they’re pretty clear about what they want and what their preferences are. How can we tailor the site and their experience to those preferences since they’re self identifying? Do you have any examples of brands or manufacturers doing that today?

Steve: It’s definitely on our roadmap. Maybe it’s showing an entire lineup on that first visit, but when that same prospective buyer returns, it’s highlighting the model they showed an affinity for in a more upfront way. It’s also interesting to look at third-party data — maybe a customer comes from Kelly Blue Book and shows an affinity for a specific make or model. Is there something a manufacturer can do with that?

If you can get that data and push it into Adobe Target, you can target based on preferences — you can pick up on those preferences, see that they have an inclination toward a competitive model, and show them your equivalent model. It’s a great way to build relationships and create strong affinity early on.

Bill: Minimally, you have to capture the last vehicle the site visitor viewed or the last car they built in the configurator. Used with an automated-personalization platform, this could be really powerful.

Aaron: There’s also plenty of opportunity in display, search, and incoming traffic from radio and TV. One of the tenets of testing is to focus on where you’re spending your dollars; so there seems to be obvious opportunity here, with optimizing media budgets.

We’ve been discussing how to match the SEM or display-ad messaging and pricing to the landing page to make sure those messages are consistent. The experience should continue — this helps consumers stay on the site, which is huge.

Thanks to Kaela for moderating and to Aaron, Steve, and Bill for lending their insights and experiences. It’s an exciting time for auto manufacturers and dealers, and there are countless ways to leverage testing, optimization, and personalization to drive meaningful impact.