Google’s view of the auto industry for 2008

This article was originally written by Jodi Harris, the managing editor of IMedia Connection. I feel it is worth posting.

The search giant‘s automotive director shares strategies for localized marketing and precision targeting and predicts some key industry trends on the verge of their tipping points.

Jodi Harris: It’s been over a year since you joined Google as the automotive vertical market director. From your perspective, have there been any big changes to the category or to Google’s automotive strategy, since then?

Bonita Stewart: We’ve seen major changes within the industry, such as soaring fuel prices, sales declines, market share fluctuations and reduced production; however, our automotive strategy remains the same. We work with our clients to demonstrate how technology, especially during turbulent times, aids ROI-driven media solutions.

Harris: Green marketing and reducing oil consumption seem to be major focal points for the coming year, and the rise in mobile technology and niche social marketing indicate that that localization will become a key marketing touchpoint for conveying brands’ positions. What thoughts or best practice recommendations can you share to help automotive marketers strategize for these big issues in 2008?

Stewart: First, automotive marketers should implement localization on two levels — brand and dealer. Brand marketers have the unique opportunity today to deliver relevant messages to their precise target, whether it’s a potential hybrid customer or someone interested in fuel economy, through contextual targeting. Meanwhile, dealers have the opportunity to geographically target their products and services, and mobile technology offers the ability to connect with a dealer during the shopping process.

Harris: Focusing in on the idea of precision targeting, what strategies do you feel work best for brands to identify and target the right niches associated with their nameplates?

Stewart: Most brand marketers have defined targets, but it’s critical to identify and then optimize their niche targets throughout the campaign, since some may have a higher ROI than others. We suggest placement targeting and taking advantage of niche sites to complement your brand strategy. If auto sales are expected to slow, it’s critical to mine for potential consumers by targeting relevant content on niche sites. More than 76 percent of page views are in niche sites. (Source: AdRelevance)

Harris: Are there other key marketing trends do you anticipate will play a big role for automotive in 2008?

Stewart: Right now we are particularly keen on the benefits of online video. It’s the new portable TV and offers the sight, sound and motion automotive marketers crave to differentiate their product and to evoke consumer emotion. In November 2007, U.S. consumers viewed more than 225 million auto/vehicle videos on YouTube. And several auto marketers have used online video to successfully launch new vehicles during the LA and Detroit auto shows, achieving views between 400,000 and 950,000 in a single day.

Harris: Video strategy also seems to be a top priority for the automotive market because so much of the purchase process involves getting a deeper feel for the car than just looking at pictures. Are there upcoming trends you see for video search and its ability to meet more tech-savvy consumers’ needs?

Stewart: Assuming they have the appropriate digital rights we encourage all of our clients to upload their video content. Google’s resources and expertise make YouTube’s search experience the best it can possibly be. Recommendations, related videos, active sharing and subscriptions are very popular ways for people to find meaningful automotive-related videos. We will continue to make search and discovery of videos a priority in 2008.

Harris: Recently, you mentioned the concept of “atomization” in campaign distribution. What suggestions do you have for dealers who want to take advantage of multiplatform communications but may be limited in their budget or staff capabilities?

Stewart: Both brand marketers and retail dealer associations should consider atomizing their content and tools. Don’t build it and wait for consumers to come to your site. Venture out, find them and communicate with them online through gadgets that provide dealer locators, photo/video galleries, build and price features directly to the consumers in a microsite format. Consumers control the dialog now, so make it easier for them to connect with your brand on their terms.

For dealers, I would recommend a stair-step approach to multiplatform marketing. Start with search, add contextual targeting, add geographically targeted display advertising and intermingle with video.

Harris: Obviously, at Google, search is a critical component of your marketing purview. So, what would your No. 1 piece of advice be for an automotive marketer looking to optimize its search presence?

Stewart: With U.S. vehicle sales expected to be 16 million or less in 2008, we recommend going back to basics with search marketing. All auto marketers should ask themselves if they are always on, 24/7, as consumers gather product information in today’s virtual showroom. In a study we published with Compete last year on the automotive buying process, we found 65 percent of auto buyers research their products in one month or less. We also found the search engine is the No. 3 most important source for auto buyers, behind the OEM site and third-party auto sites, during the buying process. So if you are not attempting to engage your consumers on their terms, when they are ready to receive your message, you should expect diminished OEM site visits and fewer leads than your more aggressive competitors. And always remember offline plans (TV, major events) drive online activity. Be ready online for what’s happening offline. Combine relevant search marketing with targeted display campaigns.

Harris: When we last talked, you spoke about the three-tiered approach for automotive marketing. But many say the funnel is eroding, and manufacturers no longer have the luxury of campaigns that simply build awareness. Are you finding this to be true? And if so, what can marketers do to streamline the purchase process for consumers who are embracing non-traditional purchasing and are more resistant to marketing tactics.

Stewart: True, the purchase cycle is condensing and the funnel is no longer linear. Nonetheless, marketers must strive to create connections at relevant moments and make it easy for the consumer to get to know the brand. When we address the three tiers, we encourage building a cohesive strategy from the brand, from the retail dealer association and from the individual dealer. All campaigns should align with a complementary message both national and local.

Lastly, don’t ignore the data. Today it’s more compelling than ever to follow the consumer and lead from behind. Consumer engagement is increasing and driving their behavior as witnessed by the growth in social networking, video, mobile and search. On the horizon I see integrated marketing moving to integrated accountability and ROI. Marketers will develop more cause and effect levers.

A great example is the Super Bowl. It’s the all time favorite for mass reach, but how many are prepared for the aftermath? Can I search for the commercial, find it on YouTube, send it to my friends, rate the commercial, watch it on my phone, etc.?

Harris: GM made headlines recently when it announced that it would no longer be supporting the ad efforts of regional dealers. Is this a trend that you see other OEMs moving toward, as regionalization and more flexibility become key to automotive marketing?

Stewart: We see dealers realizing the reach of online marketing and its effectiveness. We see OEMs across the board stepping in to help the dealers with education, business guidance and best practices. This year will be a tipping point for retail dealer associations and we see more requests for assistance to understand the efficacy of search marketing among dealers. We see it as our role to aid their understanding of online media and de-mystify Google.