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Auto Correct: The Marketing of Car-Buying Is Changing

Ten years ago, the path to purchasing a vehicle was relatively automated. Buyers would visit about five auto dealerships, compare and contrast the best deals, and make a purchase. Despite the belief that dealerships have improved since that period, most people follow other paths to purchase now than they had previously. The average car purchaser only visits 1.6 dealerships now, as online comparison shopping has taken pole position.

Yet even with the proliferation of sites like Cars.com, Carmax.com, and Autotrader.com, not to mention dealerships’ own sites, online auto-related activities haven’t all been flourishing over the last decade. Most notably, review websites have decreased their influence on a potential purchase.

To find out why, and what consumers trust most, Luth Research collected data on 892 interested car buyers over a 6-week period and analyzed the data using their ZQ Intelligence™ software. This technology allowed Luth to passively monitor computer, smartphone, and other tech device usage by consumers and compared them to conventional questionnaires and surveys. This software monitored visits to industry sites, vehicle dealerships, vehicle manufacturers, and notably, auto review websites. Take a look at the analysis of those results below.

Deal or No Dealership

Roughly 25% of all potential purchasers consider visiting at least one dealership as essential for researching car purchases, easily the most influential factor, followed by vehicle review sites and manufacturer sites. However, most car buyers do the majority of their research online first and put off visiting a brick-and-mortar establishment. Why does this discrepancy exist?

Our survey found that people are less interested in meeting car reps because of perceived poor service and a desire for a more authentic and honest car-buying experience. Many people intentionally visit a lot when it is closed to avoid salespeople, who are seen as antagonistic or frustrating. Some dealerships are responding with non-commissioned salespeople or self-guided sales tours. Dealership contact forms that ask for phone numbers or emphasize personal contact turn off Millennial buyers. Younger generations prefer indirect communication, like email and texting.

Manufacturing Confidence

As a customer nears making a final decision on a new car — typically a four to six month process — visits to auto review sites spike, but manufacturer sites are considered the most valuable source of information. An anomaly emerges as a customer becomes more confident in a car purchase; while the visits of review sites increase at a steady rate, the importance of these sites lessens by nearly half.

Social media is also surprisingly ineffective. Fewer than one in five car purchasers (19%) visited a manufacturer’s social media page, with an even more dismal outlook for dealership pages. These results are consistent regardless of mobile or computer browsing.

Auto manufacturers, and to a lesser extent dealerships, would be wise to optimize their sites for mobile responsive viewing, especially the call-to-action, contact information, and other purchasing elements of their sites.

More News, Fewer Reviews

More than 70% of people look for vehicle specifications and an even larger majority (80%) seek brand-specific data. The majority of car buyers also desire photos and videos of cars and easy-to-find prices. This desire only increases as the consumer moves closer to the purchase date. In the final month before purchase, review sites will have dropped to a level of significance lower than any point except in the first few weeks of exploration.

Non-premium car purchasers rely on research of photos, videos, dealership location, inventory, promotions, and price, demonstrating an insistence on patience and comparison shopping. These factors are remarkably consistent across brand.

The day of the week was found to have significance; manufacturer and dealer websites will receive 5-10% more traffic on Wednesdays and Thursdays than other days, likely from prospective buyers preparing for a weekend visit to a dealership. Review sites spike on Tuesdays and remain flat among all other days.

Do Customers Know Why They Buy?

Consumers frequently understate the importance of many factors that relate to auto purchasing, including fuel economy, durability, quality, reliability, and safety. The largest gaps between consumer behavior and self-reported attitudes emerge when considering a specific dealership, and most significantly, the reputation of an automobile’s brand. Interestingly, the stated importance of price and value is accurate with regard to consumer behavior.

While consumption of traditional advertising (e.g. print ads, television commercials) and computer advertising remained flat throughout the process, car buyers nearly doubled the amount of time they spent researching on their mobile devices within the final month before a purchase. This spike comes even as consumers rank mobile websites and apps as one of the least important elements in purchasing a car; quite possibly, the subtle influence of mobile browsing has not yet been consciously addressed by consumers.

After the Purchase

Once the purchase is complete, it’s important to note where customers prefer to provide feedback. Rather than hopping onto social platforms or review sites, customers are more likely to post that feedback on the site of the company from which they bought the car. For dealerships looking to engage more with customers and collect that feedback, it’s important that they supply customers with an easy way to submit those comments.


Are you interested in obtaining this type of data for your brand? Take a look at our path to purchase offering.

Category: Marketing
Tags: ZQ Intelligence, research, vehicles

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