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IT in focus: Face the online challenge

For the majority of UK consumers, the internet is now a key tool when buying goods, whether it is CDs, clothes or cars. Although more expensive items might not necessarily be purchased from a website, consumers will still use the internet to find out information and to compare prices.

According to consumer research by online search provider Yahoo, 37% of respondents feel that the internet is a necessity when looking for information about cars and more than 70% say it enables them to find the best prices. The survey, which looked at the development of the automotive industry online across Europe, shows users are interested in comparing several models at the same time, along with getting information on insurance services.

Clearly, online is increasingly becoming a crucial platform for manufacturers from both an information and retail perspective, and it is now the medium of choice for any company with a product to sell and a target audience to reach.

According to management consultants Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, only 18% of the 700 US consumers it surveyed over a six-month period said that television advertising influenced their car-buying decision. General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz commented back in 2003 that “the internet is now a tool used in more than 90% of car purchases”, clearly showing a shift in the effectiveness of traditional forms of advertising and marketing towards online. Backing this up, Yahoo’s research showed that 63% of people used the internet when choosing the car they currently own.

“The website is crucial to us as a key lead generator. Our target audience is particularly technology savvy and early adopters,” says Sam Bridger, head of marketing for Smart in the UK and Ireland.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# The website is an integral part of the company’s marketing and sales strategy and is used as a “platform for all things Smart”, whether it’s generating leads, test drives or delivering e-CRM (customer relationship management) activity. As a young and fashionable brand, a strong website is also essential to represent its brand values: functionality, innovation and joy of life.

“Every piece of communication should be true to these values and, obviously, our site needs to deliver these. It’s also been important for us to incorporate the ‘join in’ creative style into the site,” says Bridger.

Feedback from visitors has been positive and reveals that they like the vibrancy of the site. Smart is currently addressing the fact that the content is predominantly for potential owners and is looking to increase existing owner content, but ultimately it is a valuable tool for increasing sales and dealer traffic.

“All retailers are linked via the retailer locator. This locator is now featured as part of the global navigation, so that a link to it is accessible at all times. This is also the case for brochures, test drives and the Smart chat functionality,” says Bridger.

The site carries key campaign messages in the form of animated banners on the homepage, as well as having dedicated sections for special editions and offers, but striking an equal level between promoting the brand and promoting offers is paramount.

“A balance is very important, particularly with a brand like Smart. Offers are key, as they work hard on ‘shifting metal’. However, we are also a very emotive brand. People are buying into it because they love what it stands for. Therefore, it must be a fine line between tactical and brand building communications,” she adds.

Citroën is another manufacturer that aims to promote itself as fashionable and ‘funky’ brand, epitomized by the recent C4 ‘alive with technology’ advertising campaign. This led to an increase in traffic on the company website and was a useful tool to promote the brand, as well as that specific model.

“The C4 campaign stimulated a lot of interest in the website and illustrates how all our marketing and advertising mediums are interlinked,” says Giovanni Gribaudo, web and online marketing manager for Citroën UK.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# “The website is important to us and to our customers. Recent research by Citroën in the UK shows that 70-85% of customers who buy a car have used the site and we have had very positive feedback from it.”

Citroën has designed its site to be useful to customers at every different stage of the buying process and has ensured that it provides up-to-date and relevant information required by visitors. “The online aspect is a very important component in the way we communicate with our customers.

“Manufacturers’ sites have certainly evolved from just a basic corporate presence to a full online interactive media source,” says Gribaudo.

“But while we aim to have an interesting look and feel to the site, it is important to combine this with good usability – this is the key to a good website. It’s very important that customers can get the information they need quickly and easily. For instance, it’s not always easy to communicate all the offers we have across the model ranges, but the web allows customers to search for offers on different models,” he adds.

With vehicle manufacturers investing vast amounts of money in marketing and advertising, you would expect their websites to be at the forefront of design and usability. They are, after all, a huge presence for any brand and the first port of call for most people looking for information about a particular make or model.

However, according to recent research commissioned by Trader Media Group, publishers of Auto Trader, manufacturers are failing to deliver good customer service online. The research focused on six manufacturer websites, BMW, Volvo, Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford and Vauxhall, and tracked the consumer’s journey from opening the homepage to visiting the used car section.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# The results showed that all sites had scope for improvement on their homepages with Ford and VW giving the poorest first impressions – only 50% of VW visitors and 46% of Ford visitors said they would continue to use the site at that point. In contrast, Toyota gave the best first impression, with 60% rating the homepage as better than other sites.

The first impression of any website is obviously important and, while several sites had eye-catching images of new models, vehicle valuation was not prominent on any of the them. According to the study, consumers were most impressed by easy to navigate sites with stylish design. Simple things, such as the time it takes a site to load and finding links to used or new car locators, were also important.

However, customer service was seen as the largest differentiator between websites and Vauxhall and VW scored poorly with 74% of calls to Vauxhall and 76% of calls to VW failing to generate a response. Problems at VW were further compounded by burying its helpdesk telephone numbers within the site.

This was one of the most concerning results from the survey. Customers were often left struggling just to find a contact number or email address. If manufacturers want potential buyers to take the next step in purchasing a car, surely providing a contact number for information would be a simple task. However, those that did list contact numbers – BMW and Toyota – both had helpful and polite customer service departments.

“Our usability study clearly shows that there are key areas for improving the customer’s online experience on manufacturer websites. There are areas on all sites that confused surveyors, while all have issues with their FAQ section,” says Craig Stevens, commercial director for digital media at Trader Media Group.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Consumers also ran vehicle searches on the websites and compared the results. BMW came out on top with more than 95% of people happy with the results they received. More importantly, more than three quarters felt they had enough information to be able to make a buying or viewing decision, whereas 60% of Ford and a similar figure for Volvo felt they did not.

Ford also received poor feedback, particularly for its use of library images rather than ones of the actual car, lack of detailed information and the need to drill down before relevant vehicles could be found.

Toyota scored well for good supporting information, including road tests, but its stock locator underperformed most other sites in speed of access and ease of use.

In the final assessment of all sites, BMW came top, with 83% of consumers saying that the website was either professional or good in all respects. In contrast, Toyota and VW performed badly with 14% of respondents describing the overall experience as poor.

When it came to buying a car, surveyors were most likely (74%) to use the BMW site to buy cars but were least likely to use the Volvo site (only 13%).

There is still a big chasm between the standards and quality of manufacturers’ websites. The key message is that no manufacturer site is meeting all the needs of consumers, even though their requirements are generally very straightforward.

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