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GLOBAL 2016: Brands need to create platforms that enable frictionless experience or risk losing customers

Car marketing illustrates the challenge in the era of customer control

by Dan Whitmarsh
Global Head of Planning for Volkswagen Group
Digital has transformed marketing forever, and the way it has changed is not just in what we as marketers can do but in what customers expect. It is no longer – if it ever was – a question of herding potential customers through some fixed gates on their way to purchasing a product. Instead we are faced with customers whom have been trained to expect a seamless experience entirely on their terms by brands that were born in the digital era.
For the generation of people who grew up with Facebook, Google and Apple it is not just desirable that everything works perfectly with the devices and apps through which they already experience the world – it is incomprehensible to them when it does not. The price they consciously pay in order to enjoy these seamless experiences is the data they give us access to. Their mindset is, “I’ve given you all this data about who I am and what I want – why haven’t you used it?”
These behaviors are not restricted to millennials though; the key drivers of the expectation of a frictionless experience are, of course, social and mobile, and they have both reached a point of near-saturation across all demographics. For example, by far the fastest growing demographic of Facebook users is 65-plus. Marketing as a whole, and car marketing in particular, knows that it needs to catch up with these expectations, to invest ever more in digital. But what does this really entail?
The mobile interface has already reached the tipping point of being the new normal; 78 percent of the world’s Internet users are also mobile Internet users – that’s 2.6 billion people. Recent search data shows that mobile search has now overtaken desktop within the car buying process, and by 2020 the number of buyers using multiple devices for auto research is forecast to be 80 percent.
This matters a great deal for two reasons: firstly because on average just 50 apps account for 80 percent of mobile device screen time. Therefore, all of this increasing time spent online and on mobile is taking place inside walled gardens of data – and both agencies and clients need to act now in order to maintain visibility of this customer behavior.
But when it comes to delivering a frictionless customer experience, the fact that so much of mobile digital usage is through the lens of a relatively small pool of apps also has significant impact. It means that the inertia that drives customers to certain apps or platforms is potentially stronger than the inertia that drives brand awareness or preference. It is clear that people will not change their behavior to suit brand sites and structures. Consequently, if customers tap through to a site that isn’t optimized for mobile, they aren’t going to remember to come back later on a laptop – they will simply go elsewhere. 
Yet in the midst of all of this transformation, the primary structures that the auto industry is built around are still vital. The number of dealer visits per purchase may have dropped dramatically in the last decade, but according to some studies as many as 84 percent of buyers still want to purchase a car in person. Manufacturer websites also remain crucial; Millward Brown path to purchase research shows that 86 percent of buyers will visit the brand site in the closing stages of buying a car.
The point here is that while the structures themselves are as important now as they have always been, the actual experience of using them has fallen behind the frictionless standards set outside of the auto category. Despite those high numbers of buyers still using the “traditional” manufacturer contact points, less than 1 percent of buyers surveyed by JD Power agreed that the current buying process was ideal. The changes required to improve that number are all about customer access, saving time and reducing the friction that leads to frustrating experiences.
Control over when and where car buying information is accessed has passed fully to the customer, and we as marketers need to respect that. Modern marketing must build structures to accommodate these actions at any time – and use data intelligently to predict and deliver the right content on the right platform at the right time.

Action Points for frictionless experience

  1. Use customer journey data to plan customer access, not just ad placement. The device they use and the app or platform they start from have a huge impact on their expectations. 
  2. The use of simple login details or even social API linkages such as Facebook (if the data privacy challenges could be managed) could dramatically reduce friction for the ever-increasing number of buyers who use multiple devices in their research. Facebook doesn’t care which device you use to access your profile, why should car brands? 
  3. The linkage between online research and the dealer experience is another prime opportunity for reducing friction. Device location data can be used to automatically send buyer preferences and car configuration details to the closest dealer, allowing the next contact to be entirely tailored to the individual buyer so as to save them time and effort.
  4. Thinking mobile first opens up a new world of convenient and frictionless service for owners. Expect to see brand owner portals expand rapidly in this area, integrating more benefits into one point of access – as well as more upsell opportunities for accessories and service plans. 

MediaCom is the “The Content + Connections Agency”, working to leverage brands’ entire system of communications across paid, owned and earned channels to step change business outcomes.