Mobile Becomes Engine for Auto Marketing

As Consumers Use Phones to Research Cars, Marketers are Following

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Toyota targets people based on their online habits with custom videos starring actor James Marsden.
Toyota targets people based on their online habits with custom videos starring actor James Marsden. Credit: Courtesy Toyota

It used to be people shopped for cars in dealerships. But now they are making their car-buying decisions at the gym, the gas station or the deli.

The desktop computer is losing relevance in the auto industry almost as quickly as the car salesperson as buyers turn to their smartphones to finalize car-buying decisions and research options while going about daily routines.

The average car buyer makes just two visits to dealerships, but one in four purchasers use mobile every day to research vehicles, according to a report late last year by Google that cited data from researchers including Millward Brown and TNS. Twenty-seven percent of people do most of their vehicle research on a mobile device, according to a recent study by Ipsos commissioned by Facebook. And among coveted consumer groups the rate is even higher: 45% of millennials, 48% of Hispanics and 41% of people with household incomes greater than $200,000 are mobile-first auto consumers.

Chevrolet Camaro SIX app
Chevrolet Camaro SIX app Credit: Courtesy GM

That explains why ad dollars keep migrating to mobile. In 2015, the auto sector spent $3.43 billion on mobile ads in the U.S., representing 47% of the industry's total digital ad spending, according to eMarketer. The trend mirrors the move to mobile in other so-called high consideration categories, like home buying. "These [purchasing] journeys that you used to sit for all day on Saturday and try to figure it all out, now people do this in these small stolen moments on their phone," said Lisa Gevelber, VP-marketing for Google's ad business.

Here's a look at some ways automakers are targeting mobile-first buyers:

Swipe left

Nissan and Dodge are among the brands using a new automotive search ad format from Google that is geared for mobile and takes viewers directly from to a carousel of swipable car images showing how vehicles look inside and out. If the image is tapped, more information, like MPG, is displayed, while a "dealers" link reveals nearby dealers. It is a "beautiful way of making that impression worth that much more," said Fred Reinfelder, Nissan's director-media and interactive marketing.

Make it personal

Saatchi & Saatchi L.A. recently launched a mobile-friendly Facebook campaign for the new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid that took targeting to the next level. Using 100 video clips, the agency and Cloneless Media created more than 100,000 unique video ads starring actor James Marsden. Ads were served to users based on their Facebook habits such as likes and searches. So if a person was into video games and fantasy sports, they got a video referencing those hobbies.

Localize It

Automakers are also using mobile location data to target messages. Ford has run ads that use local weather and other data to target messages, like one ad that stated: "Beat Labor Day humidity (& frizzy hair) with Ford Fusion's available dual zone temp control." Smartphones are the most personal devices consumers own, so "you have to deliver something of value and something of relevance," said Thomais Zaremba, Ford's digital marketing manager.

Remove the hassle

Ads that call for people to enter information are harder to pull off on mobile compared with desktop ads in which people have the benefit of an easy-to-use keyboard. But Facebook is pushing a mobile solution called "lead ads" that include forms that automatically populate using personal information previously shared with Facebook, like names and email addresses. Land Rover has used the format with ads that allow people to request a car quote right from their news feed, instead of directing people to a specific website. The program led to a four-times reduction in cost-per-lead, according to Facebook, citing Land Rover data.

Building cars on a phone

Mobile sites have struggled with so-called "configurators" that allow users to virtually build cars by mixing and matching features like colors and wheel types. Only 68% of mobile auto sites have configurators, compared with 93% of desktop sites, according to the L2 Digital Index. But some automakers are using apps to build configurators that take advantage of smartphone features, like getting 360- degree views by moving a phone in different directions. Chevrolet recently launched an immersive app for the 2016 Camaro that has garnered 62,000 downloads in just a couple months, said John Foley, senior manager for Chevrolet's digital and CRM marketing.

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