The Internet has definitely become a key research tool for car shoppers, but how good is it at influencing a vehicle purchase? R.L. Polk and sought to answer that question and more through a study of more than 4,000 new- and used-vehicle buyers.

Conducted between September and October 2010, “The Automotive Buying Influence Study” revealed details about how consumers use the Internet when shopping for vehicles. The study concluded that dealers still have room to improve their Internet marketing strategies.

Internet Wields Influence

Not surprisingly, the study found that the Internet is the research medium consumers turned to most when shopping for a vehicle. In fact, more than 71 percent of respondents said they use the Internet while shopping for new and used vehicles, more than double the rate of any other information sources.

TV, radio, direct mail and magazine ads represented the second most influential sources for car-buying information. Ninety-seven percent of respondents indicated that social media sites such as Facebook had little influence on their final purchasing decisions. 

Shoppers Rely on Third-Party Sites

New-vehicle buyers who responded to the survey spent an average of 19 hours shopping for a vehicle, about an hour more than used-vehicle buyers. Both groups spent 60 percent of that time shopping online, with third-party Websites such as — rather than dealer and manufacturer sites — getting the bulk of their attention.

New-vehicle buyers spent 3.5 hours on third-party Websites, while used-vehicle buyers spent seven hours on such sites. The study also showed that new-vehicle buyers tend to distribute their time more evenly across third-party, OEM and dealer Websites.

Search engines — especially Google — represent key tools in the shopping process, the study showed. Dealer Websites, address and phone number information ranked among the top searches. Manufacturer Websites also were highly sought out by shoppers.

Beyond Brand Visibility

Aside from looking at how consumers use the Internet to shop vehicles, the study also provided implications for how dealers should engage consumers online. Visibility is the main reason for establishing an online presence, but the study’s findings indicate that dealers need to better understand why customers search for their sites.

“Give shoppers what they want — detailed vehicle information, accurate pricing, relevant content, ability to compare vehicles — and promote your inventory and brand throughout the entire shopping process,” noted the study’s researchers.

Dealers also will need to do a better job with their search engine optimization strategies to drive traffic to their Websites. This finding speaks to the importance of dealers marketing their sites on third-party Websites.

In addition, the study found that seven out of 10 shoppers don’t establish contact with a dealership before making a visit. This means dealers need to look beyond the number of phone calls and e-mails they receive and develop other methods to track which advertising sources drive walk-in traffic.