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The shopping journey for an auto purchase is unique: Consumers don’t purchase a car online, but they do much of their research there. It’s critical for auto brands to understand how to best drive consumers to visit a dealer, and ultimately buy there.

Helping our auto clients navigate this world, Lincoln Merrihew has amassed a wealth of knowledge on the auto industry. Lincoln is my next interview subject for our recently launched blog series, the Digital Dialogue.

Starting broadly, what would you say is the biggest digital challenge auto manufacturers are facing today?

Auto brands are struggling to understand how digital and analog strategies work together and how they can most efficiently allocate their spend among them. For example, how does the message in a TV campaign interact with a desktop ad and a billboard and a mobile ad? How does that same TV ad actually drive online behaviors? If auto brands could understand how their media works together or when it’s redundant (or even counterproductive), they could better allocate their media dollars. I don’t think any brand knows how to put that all together right now.

We all know that consumers are using multiple devices more and more in their daily lives, can you talk a little about how shifting device preferences are impacting auto manufacturers?

Recent Millward Brown Digital research has shown that the longer the amount of time needed for online research, the more likely a consumer is to prefer to use a desktop or laptop. Cars and trucks are complex products with different models and features, and smartphones seem to struggle to provide the best consumer experience in the research phase.

However, we do see that consumers often use their phones on dealer lots to conduct last-minute research, look up contact information for another dealer, etc. We see this across many industries we study, where consumers use desktops for the research heavy-lifting, and then switch to mobile for in-store activity.

What do you think is the biggest opportunity for auto brands to get digital right?

So I think there are two things:

1. I call buying a car a “romance purchase,” in that buyers choose as much with their hearts as with their heads – more so than other products like appliances. That means it’s very important that marketers integrate behavioral research with insights on attitudes and brand perceptions. Many consumers have strong feelings (both positive and negative) toward auto brands, and those feelings are very important to understand when analyzing consumer behavior.

2. I also think it’s very powerful to take a step back and look outside of auto sites when thinking about how to get in front of your consumers. What else do they like to do? What other interests are revealed through online behaviors. Are they sports-oriented? Do they like to travel? Are they interested in higher education? Is their house on the market? Once you understand more about the in-the-moment mindset of people buying cars you have a much bigger media play you can make.

This is so important because, for some shoppers, the journey is so short that you might not be able to influence them much while they’re actually in-market using just traditional automotive channels. You need to figure out how to get your brand in front of consumers who might be potential customers in the future, even if they aren’t actively engaging with the auto category right now.

Finally, what’s an interesting trend in the digital landscape you want to keep an eye on?

I think that there is a lot of opportunity to use the use of branded search terms (vs. generic search terms) on search engines to measure digital brand awareness. By this I mean looking at how many people are searching on terms like “Toyota” or “Chevrolet” vs. more generic terms like “sedan” or “hybrid,” and using this to quantify digital brand awareness. Comparing those results trended unaided awareness can yield powerful new insights on what people recall and what they actually act on. I think there is real potential there and it’s something that I’m excited to be working on.

Thanks, Lincoln!

Lincoln co-leads Client Services for the Consumer Dynamics business, with a focus on Travel, Automotive, Retail and Consumer Goods industries. Before rejoining Millward Brown Digital, he was SVP Segment Leader for TNS North American Custom Research. Previously Lincoln also managed his own consulting practice, Stratomotive, served as Vice President of Corporate Strategy at Automotive Information Center, was a Director at J.D. Power and Associates. Lincoln holds a M.S. from Boston University and a B.A. from Dickinson College.