Carmakers, dealers, and independent auto sites collectively invest more than $1 billion each year trying to turn online auto shoppers into buyers. However, most auto site owners underutilize even their own traffic data, and don’t understand how mapping online shoppers’ behavior from site to site can provide valuable clues to future purchases. To effectively select serious carbuyers from the millions of site visitors, auto site owners must correlate carbuyers’ unique multisite shopping behavior to near-term (within three months) vehicle purchases, according to a recent report by Forrester Research (Nasdaq: FORR).

Forrester’s report, “Carbuyers’ Paths To Purchase,” is based on Forrester’s detailed analysis of three months of continuous online behavior data and buyer-reported purchase data provided by comScore Networks, extracted from comScore’s Global Network of more than 1.5 million opt-in Internet users. To find the correlation between online shopping behavior and carbuying, Forrester observed 78,000 individual consumers’ paths through 170 auto sites and interviewed 17 auto site owners and software providers. Behavior patterns like frequency and intensity of research sessions and cross-site comparison-shopping were strong purchase predictors.

Using A Cartography To Find Serious Carbuyers

Tracking individual users shows which ones are likely to buy, but they are hard to catch — unless you know how to look. By following user paths from site to site, Forrester found that:

  • Online auto marketing and retailing continues to see strong growth despite 2001’s dismal auto market. While independent sites remain popular with consumers, OEM sites have surpassed them with a 59 percent increase in traffic in 2001.
  • Site owners lack the data and tools to know where they fit in the online auto retail landscape — or how individual customers use their sites.
  • Roughly one in four auto site visitors buys a car within three months.
  • Repeat visitors are rare. Sixty-four percent of all buyers complete their research in five sessions or less.
  • Auto shoppers’ Web research paths predict their probability of vehicle purchase; on some paths, 46 percent are near-term buyers.
  • The theory of a “marketing funnel” doesn’t map to actual carbuyer behavior. Conventional wisdom suggests that shoppers first visit information sites, then OEMs, then eRetailers or dealer sites as they go from awareness to interest, desire, and action. Mapping consumer data reveals a messier, more complex consideration process.

“Common assumptions about customer behavior when shopping for vehicles online are wrong,” said Mark Dixon Bü nger, senior analyst, Forrester Research. “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.

“Single-site traffic analysis is not enough to understand and influence multisite, multisession auto shoppers,” added Bü nger. “Today’s Web site analysis tools weren’t created to measure the complex nature of online auto shopping, which involves many sites over several episodes. We suggest a carbuyer cartography — a better map of the shopping process that can measure and explain customer behavior over a period of time.”

Creating A Site Owner Road Map Of Carbuyer Paths

Based on a simple set of rules to identify car shoppers’ cross-site paths more systematically, Forrester developed a site owner road map to help auto site owners better understand their customers and segment them into four distinct carbuying profiles. Since this segmentation is not predictive, Forrester suggests that to sell more cars through a better site experience, companies need to help each type of buyer reach its different goals. For example:

  • Explorers. Carbuying is a journey of discovery for them, so give them 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.
  • Off-roaders. They climb mountains of research into showrooms, but 34 percent walk out with new keys. 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. They visit five sites or fewer, making their behavior much more of a mystery. Although they are the largest segment of automotive site visitors, 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.

“Carbuyers’ paths illustrate the multisite consumer experience, and each brand’s buyers are different,” concludes Bü nger. “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.”

Where To Learn More

Forrester’s Automotive Summit, “Using Technology To Unlock Customer Value,” being held February 24-25, 2002, in Los Angeles, will address how to use the Web and other technologies — like CRM software and telematics — strategically to build brands, enhance the user experience, and strengthen the car owner connection. For more information about Forrester’s 2002 Events, please visit or call +1 888/34-FORUM.

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