On the face of it, this is boom time for car brands in the UK. The latest figures, from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, show new car sales hitting a record high of 2.7 million in 2016.
But a closer look at the figures reveals that things are not all rosy in the car sales garden. Private sales actually fell for the nine consecutive months since March and are expected to decline by between 5% and 6% during 2017.
Not amazing news for leading car manufacturers perhaps, but I’d argue that this, perversely at first glance, actually promises to be positive for direct and CRM agencies. This is because it means car marketing departments will at last have to do something about their terrible websites to preserve their market share.
There’s no doubt that car company websites need transforming and a sales downturn will provide the jump-start the sector needs. A car brand’s website is its most under-utilised asset and the chance is there for agencies to bring to bear their expertise and their ability to fix the current levels of underperformance.
The situation is so bad with car websites that I bet that for every 100 visitors to the average automotive home page, about only one person, if that, will visit a dealer. This has to change. Having spent millions to generate site traffic, the automotive companies then do very little to engage visitors and help them through the minefield of choice available to them.
A car brand’s website is its most under-utilised asset and the chance is there for agencies to bring to bear their expertise and their ability to fix the current levels of underperformance.
It's baffling. Where are the examples of car company sites that seek to understand how visitors feel? And what are they doing to find out where people are in their buying journey and what information they need? Few of them even attempt to reassure people that they're making the right choice. They're all on "transmit" mode rather than building the relationship and convincing drivers to make the purchase.
For agencies this opens up great possibilities in fixing the problem because we now have machine learning, bots, and artificial intelligence in our armoury. Leading car manufacturers just need to take a look at websites in another categories to see what I mean.
For example ao.com, the electrics and household goods retailer. These guys do a decent job in helping guide shoppers through the tyranny of choice, often for relatively high-ticket items. They understand that when buying washing machines, TVs, and hoovers, there is so much choice that people need reassurance that they're not going to buy an over-priced dud.
Ao.com realises people require a useful way to narrow down their options and has built its website around functionality such as "Inspire Me" and "Help Me Choose."
And here's a non-transactional website that appreciates its exact role in the sales process. Kuoni knows just how to distinguish between the sell and the transaction. The website makes you want the holiday so when people visit a store it's to do the deal. This should sound familiar to car companies but it’s an approach that is sadly lacking in the behaviour of automotive brands.
It’s time that they shape up. Despite what is expected to be a testing year in terms of new car sales in the UK, the opportunities for motor marketing departments and their agencies are clear to see.
Greater emphasis on the customer, their purchasing journey, and how this is delivered through the website will separate the high performers from those stuck in the pit lane.
Ben Rachel is the planning director at Soul.