Observe the dominant automaker, preying on the alpha sale

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Attention automakers: Spend less on TV and more on the Internet trying to reach "alpha car buyers," an influential group that holds surprising sway over auto-purchasing decisions.

That's the advice of Forrester Research senior analyst Mark Dixon Bunger, who found, in an online survey conducted in April, that 34% of all consumers said word-of-mouth advice was the key factor in their vehicle purchase. And among one type of alpha buyer he identified, "enthusiasts" who scour the Web for auto information, 65% often tell other people about products that interest them. "Enthusiasts are a conduit for customers," said Mr. Bunger.

This is not the first time a survey has cited the Web as a good way to reach auto buyers-J.D. Powers & Associates' Autoshopper.com survey found 50% of buyers research online before buying. But the Forrester study is believed to be the first to isolate the multiplier effect these word-of-mouth alpha influencers wield.

Alpha car buyers are overwhelmingly male; only 26% are female. There are three types: auto enthusiasts, early adapters or innovators; and connectors (defined as "people who know what's cool.") Compared to non-auto fans, 83% of alpha enthusiast buyers visit automakers' Web sites and go deeper into the site, even when they're not shopping for a new vehicle. At purchase time, they're savvy buyers, with 41% checking online for the manufacturers' suggested retail price, rebates and incentives. Roughly 9% of alpha auto enthusiasts actively read blogs.

Jeff Bell, VP of Chrysler's Jeep brand, said the automaker tries to target auto enthusiasts and is doing a decent job. He cited an increase in the automaker's branded-merchandise sales. But he added that it can be tricky to find enthusiasts.


The Internet is a great place to reach this group, preferably on the automaker's home sites since the marketers have more control there. Mr. Bunger also recommended third-party sites such as Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com. Enthusiasts also read auto buff magazines and attend auto shows and races.

In the past, auto marketers controlled their messages and "felt they were running the show," said Mr. Bunger. But today, consumers wield more power and word-of-mouth has grown in importance. He said automakers' new mind-set should be to think of alphas as "bearers of their companies' messages."

"I am not saying automakers shouldn't do TV ads, but auto television ads are the vast majority of their budgets and one of the least influential," he said. "We're starting to know which half of advertising budgets is wasted."

Three types

Alphas are either enthusiasts, innovators or connectors; 83% visit automakers Web sites, even when they’re not shopping

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