In recent years, the Internet has dominated the car-shopping process, with third-party sites regularly topping the list of most popular destinations for new- and used-car buyers alike. But OEMs and automotive retailers are hoping to buck that trend by generating more leads using their own web domains.
Toyota is one such automaker looking to change the lead-generation game. During J.D. Power and Associates’ 2014 International Automotive Roundtable in January, panelist Kimberley Gardiner told attendees that Toyota is working “every single day” to bridge the gap between the web and the showroom.
Two years ago, the OEM began mapping out a brand new digital engagement strategy, and the result was an extensive overhaul of Toyota.com, its tier-two counterpart, BuyaToyota.com, and the manufacturer’s mobile properties. But its most recent effort is the development of an online shopping tool it launched in February.
The tool, called Notebook, is in the midst of a soft rollout — but Gardiner and her team believe it is a good first step in smoothing the transition between online and in-dealership shopping. Notebook, Gardiner says, will connect customers to dealers “in a one-click fashion” while providing the critical information they need to select a vehicle.
Changing the Game
Last year, according to data from Polk, OEM and dealer sites accounted for a slightly smaller portion of car-shopping time than their third-party counterparts. And with 75% of car shopping taking place online, it’s no wonder automakers like Toyota are fighting for a bigger piece of the pie.
Since its implementation, the Notebook shopping tool has garnered a relatively small number of users — around 5,000, according to Gardiner — but those users are spending four times as long on the OEM’s site when compared to typical Toyota.com visitors.
“When customers are going through the experience and building something, they are looking at a much longer engagement time — which is also very helpful for us,” Gardiner explains. “We are seeing time spent, we’re seeing page views, we’re seeing notes saved — the kinds of things that are good markers for us that someone is serious about shopping.”
To start the process, a Toyota.com visitor need only click the “Notebook” tab, which is visible from any page on the automaker’s site. Once a Notebook has been started, the user can “pin” information from anywhere on Toyota.com — including vehicle configurations, inventory search results, local deals or dealer information.
“[These pieces of information] are typically more significant markers of short-term purchase interest,” Gardiner notes. Once a shopper begins considering inventory or incentives, she adds, the chances of him or her submitting a lead or visiting a dealer within the next 30 days is much higher than a customer examining brand content or model photos.
A Better Connection
Both Gardiner and Amit Chandarana, digital marketing manager at Toyota’s Irvine, Calif.-based field office, describe the company’s latest web tool as “seamless.” The reason for this is easy to see: Built right into Notebook are social media sharing tools, a “Send to Phone” icon that automatically generates a QR code linking to a user’s Notebook, and, most importantly, a “Share with Dealer” button.
Chandarana, who worked with Toyota dealerships in the Los Angeles region on Notebook, says that while results are not yet robust, he has received “solid feedback” from dealers.
“I think most of our dealers recognize that this is helping solve a macro-level problem of guests wanting more of a seamless shopping experience,” he says. “Dealers recognize that to get better, they need more qualified and efficient information when someone submits a lead. And this application really helps them get that information so they can make it a little less painful at the dealership.”
One of the dealerships Chandarana’s office worked with was Toyota Carlsbad, located about 90 miles south of Los Angeles. Ivan Mendelson, the dealership’s general manager, says that his nine-person team manning the dealership’s business development center (BDC) has received only two Notebook leads so far, but he expects that to change once Toyota begins promoting the tool.
Notebook users who wish to contact a dealer need only click the “Share with Dealer” icon and follow the on-screen steps. They include inputting a ZIP code to view a list of nearby dealerships, selecting the notes he or she would like to share, and providing contact details and comments.
“[Notebook] fits into not only our business model, but I think the business model of dealerships in the future,” Mendelson says. “It gets the customer the most amount of information the way that they want to receive it, and then allows the dealership and the customer to be on the same page. Most importantly, it streamlines the process once they get to the store.”
Toyota Carlsbad has already taken steps to streamline the online sales process. BDC staff, for instance, has the ability to set up an entire deal before a customer gets to the dealership. And to ease the transition between the BDC, sales and F&I, the dealership’s interactive CRM tool allows users to pull up notes on a customer simply by entering his or her name into the system via a mobile device or desktop computer.
Toyota’s elead management system, which is integrated with the dealership’s CRM, earmarks Notebook leads — something Chandarana says should indicate to a dealer that they are dealing with a higher quality lead. The lead, he adds, contains an embedded link to whatever the customer captured in their Notebook.
“They’ll know that this lead came in as a Notebook lead, which means that the customer spent a little more time,” he says. “It also gives them a link to other comparisons they’ve done, so, again, the dealer is receiving information that’s going to help the process and shorten up the time at the dealership a little bit.”
Looking for Quality
During its quarterly investor call last month, AutoNation President and COO Michael Maroone put third-party lead providers on notice, saying the dealer group would begin slashing its use of such services and channeling its marketing investments into its own web properties if lead providers didn’t become more competitive. The group’s websites currently generate more sales than all of its third-party relationships combined, he added.
Similarly, Mendelson says the majority of Toyota Carlsbad’s Internet leads come from its own website. And although he thinks Toyota is not about to throw third-party lead providers out the window, Mendelson sees the appeal of AutoNation’s approach.
“To me, it’s all about the return on investment, so I would love to have as many leads come directly through our site as possible,” Mendelson says. “I think Notebook fits into that … but I do think that there will still be customers — just because of the high trust factor — looking for information on third-party sites, whether it’s Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book. And we welcome that as well.”
Mendelson says he also gets the highest quality leads from the dealership’s own site. One of the advantages of Notebook leads, he notes, is that customers have the ability to search real, available inventory and share their findings with the dealership.
“On some of these programs, the customers will be looking at a car that is either a special order-type car or vehicle that might be really hard to find,” he says. “I think [Notebook] is a little bit more interactive; the customer is able to kind of look at the same inventory that we’re looking at, which is pretty nice.”
Notebook users can also save vehicles they build using Toyota.com’s vehicle configurator, which is tuned into the site’s inventory search. That connection allows shoppers to view similar vehicles located in their market area with the click of a button.
Paving the Way
In its current form, Toyota Notebook is a cookie-based tool, meaning the content can only be accessed for 30 days from the same device. In the coming months, however, Toyota plans to implement a social media login feature that will allow users to access their Notebook whenever they want and for as long as they want.
“We want to, again, make it a seamless, easy journey, and we know there are so many decision points that a customer goes through,” Gardiner says. The automaker will also be promoting the tool through direct marketing channels, such as its owner database, and to in-market shoppers.
Toyota’s Gardiner says Notebook is still in its pilot stage, with about 40 dealerships nationwide currently receiving Notebook leads. “From the corporate standpoint, our goal was to try to bring more ways to help the dealer know the customer sooner in the shopping process and connect them with that customer sooner,” Gardiner says. “From the customer standpoint, it’s a good thing for them to organize their shopping experience and bring the dealer into it in a way that feels more helpful.
“In the end, Notebook is better equipping the dealer and the consumer on both sides of the equation.”