Heath Thompson was getting ready to stop advertising on Autotrader and cut back on digital spending last fall at his rural Georgia store when the company, hoping to retain the contract, offered to do an attribution study to show Autotrader’s influence.
Thompson, general manager of Ronnie Thompson Ford in East Ellijay, Ga., agreed to the study. He was surprised by what he learned.
Data analytics firm Transparency, which does the studies for Cox Automotive’s third-party sites Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, examined the store’s dealership management system and other data between May 1 and August 31. It found that 63 percent of the dealership’s customers during that span had visited Autotrader or KBB before purchasing a vehicle.
The study attributed 41 sales to the sites, six of them first-time buyers. Transparency classified first-time buyers as customers who hadn’t transacted at the dealership in the past five years.
The findings were a revelation for Thompson, who realized he could attribute 30 percent of his monthly gross to visitors of Autotrader or KBB. Before, he estimated the monthly gross figure at less than 10 percent.
Thompson said a quarter of the customers at his rural store don’t have email. He didn’t believe so many of his clients were shopping online before coming to the showroom.
“I would’ve called somebody a liar if they tried to tell me 63 percent of customers shopped online before they showed up to my dealership,” Thompson said. The study “has a lot of great information for dealers, especially dealers who were in the position I was in [where I] was ready to cut out a big portion of the Internet business.”
He added, “It wound up showing me a lot more than I ever dreamed it would.”
Cox Automotive’s attribution effort is just one of the latest examples of ways third-party sites are stepping up their capabilities to track consumer shopping behavior. In the process, some sites are attempting to answer the most important question in digital marketing for dealers: Are my ads moving metal?
Stats such as vehicle detail page views and impressions are solid measurement tools from which dealerships can glean insights. But shopping portals know they have to provide even more detailed analysis to show their value in a digital world where a variety of players are vying for dealership ad dollars.
Cox Automotive began conducting its attribution studies with Transparency last year for thousands of dealerships on Autotrader and KBB that had inventory on the sites as of Sept. 1.
The limited-time Transparency studies, which Cox pays for, complement the volume metrics that stores normally get on KBB and Autotrader. These volume stats include the number of email exchanges and chat sessions stores get from ads and vehicle detail page views. The studies build on that data.
“We’ve got our dealers who are wanting to see direct influence and direct attribution versus just an inference on it and volume numbers on their sites,” said Brian Geitner, president of the Cox Automotive Media Solutions Group.
Connecting site visits to sales is how TrueCar makes its money.
Brian Skutta, TrueCar’s executive vice president of dealer sales and service, said the site has been devoted to a direct-attribution model since its inception.
But TrueCar’s billing model, which charges dealers for sales even if a consumer visited multiple shopping sites, has come under fire from the likes of AutoNation Inc. in recent years.
When a consumer generates a lead on TrueCar or one of its 500-plus affiliate partners, the site tracks them. When the deal is closed and becomes a “sold record” in a store’s reporting system, TrueCar matches the lead to the transaction through a process it calls sales matching that taps into store data.
While some may doubt this technique, Skutta said TrueCar’s closed loop model opens opportunities for the site to consult with dealers on the performance of their listings. This can include examining lost sales, defined as people who came through the TrueCar system, were introduced to a dealer but decided to buy at another store.
Skutta said TrueCar can use its sales analyzer tool to track all of a dealership’s sales down to the ZIP code.
“What we’re doing is tracking consumer behavior before our site and while in our site,” Skutta said. “We’re also tracking the dealer’s lead-handling processes, and then we put the aggregate of those three together to be able to go back and talk to the dealer on how to be better and convert more sales.”
Skutta said the industry is still trying to get its head around attribution, especially when gauging the quality of site visits. Some dealers are putting more emphasis on first-touch attribution, while Skutta said others focus on who touched a consumer last to figure out which sites had the biggest impact on a shopper’s decision.
Cars.com has linked with digital marketing company Clarivoy to give dealers a multitouch perspective through Google Analytics. This lets Cars.com prove its impact on the shopping journey in an age where consumers visit multiple sites before buying.
Dealers who focus only on last-touch attribution are overlooking the various stages of the shopping process that led consumers down the funnel in the first place, said Clarivoy CEO Steve White.
He said Clarivoy’s multitouch attribution system can show dealers how much of a role Cars.com played.
Clarivoy said at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in January that it was placing analytics tags on Cars.com so it can track consumers who visit the third-party site’s vehicle display pages, don’t click on anything but, based on what they see, later visit a dealership’s website.
This tracking allows Clarivoy to say, “Cars.com was responsible for that sale, or played a role in it,” White told Automotive News during the convention. “They don’t want to take all the credit. Cars.com, we’ll give them 33 percent credit for that sale.”
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