But even basic tools of online promotion are getting more complicated, as three states recently stipulated new rules about premium redemption, threatening the smooth execution of nationwide sweepstakes and giveaways for carmakers.
More troubling is research showing consumers are reacting negatively to widespread banner ads and some online promotions can do more harm than good if they frustrate consumers.
"Consumers have made it clear through research and focus groups that they don't like getting interrupted, and we can't bombard them with banner ads in the hope that they'll follow the ad to have a positive brand experience," says Lane Soelberg, director of e-commerce for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., which handles online and general advertising for Nissan North America.
Automotive research and consulting company J.D. Power & Associates also has turned up troubling evidence that the Internet is proving to be more of a hindrance for car marketers than a help.
"Consumers are using the Internet to mix it up [negotiate] with the salesperson, not as a way to enrich their relationships with the car or the brand," says Chris Denove, director of consulting operations at Power.
Another dilemma automotive marketers face in targeting consumers online is the fact that people using the Internet tend to be less brand loyal, says Art Spinella, VP at CNW Marketing/Research.
"Research shows Internet users are less likely to be committed to any particular brand, so it's not a good way to build brands. People are hunting for short-term deals on the Internet, the opposite of the long-term discipline of brand-building," Mr. Spinella says.
Auto marketers have had mixed experiences so far with online promotions, and many are now steering clear of "cattle-call" style promotions that brought masses of unqualified consumers into dealerships to enter sweepstakes and win prizes.
"Many people entering sweepstakes online are not actually in the market for a car, and dealerships don't want this kind of action," says Steve McGuire, interactive manager for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet brand.
Instead, companies such as Chevrolet are working to craft offers designed to appeal to consumers already in the market for a specific car, including offering sweepstakes and rewards to people who were already visiting general car-buying research Web sites.
Chevrolet has made several such test-drive offers online to pickup and Malibu buyers, Mr. McGuire says.
Consumers can click on a button on a general Web site allowing them to print out a certificate good for a prize such as a free music CD at a dealership, he says.
That practice may become more difficult with new rules taking effect this year in Kansas, Louisiana and Texas. Mr. McGuire says the rules will force dealers to present premiums to the consumer immediately when they visit a dealership.
"This will hurt us, because many of our national promotions involve a mail-in redemption of a prize. It's very difficult to plan and manage inventory for such promotions if we have to keep the gear on hand for each consumer visit," says Brian Boyd, Chevrolet's manager of brand sales promotion.
Saturn division of GM has used the Internet heavily in its prelaunch promotion efforts for its new S-series cars, particularly in a strategic effort to target younger buyers online since the average age of Saturn buyers is 42.
Tempting consumers with a sweepstakes to win a car this spring and a series of banner ads, Saturn used the Internet to gather the names of more than 200,000 potential Saturn buyers last fall, says a spokesman from Saturn's agency, Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco.
But for many online efforts, putting the right online offer in front of customers who are actually poised to buy a car is "like throwing darts," says Mr. McGuire.
Nissan experienced disappointing results from general banner ads and online promotions. This year, the company decided to reverse its strategy and try to attract potential car buyers instead of chasing them, says Steve Bava, Nissan's e-business marketing manager.
One of the first examples of the new strategy was used to promote the new Sentra sedan among college students this spring. Nissan joined forces with such online partners as CollegeClub.com, CBS.com and LoadTV.com to create an online promotion centered on a new site, Roadtriptohoopla.com. The site launched in mid-March and continued through the NCAA's Final Four basketball championships earlier this month.
For the promotion, cast members were hired to drive around to U.S. college campuses in Sentras, taking photos of college students, which were posted on the Web site. They also randomly ask students to compete to do a "shameless plug" for the car. Performances were captured on video and added to the site.
Two separate sweepstakes allowed consumers to compete to win a Sentra simply by visiting the site; a separate college student will win a Sentra for performing the best plug for the car.
"The goal is reaching people who have already given us permission to talk to them about the brand and making the online content interesting and also involving the car brand within the content," says Mr. Bava. The promotion exists entirely on the Internet; TBWA/Chiat/Day handles.
Mr. Bava admits the company is still in the "learning curve" for online promotions.
Mr. Denove is underwhelmed by online promotions so far. Online promotions and sweepstakes "only serve to keep the industry on a treadmill of offering incentives after incentives, rather than selling cars based on true brand power."