Massive Cash, Uncertain Attribution: Automotive Ad Spend Trends

Along with insurance companies, car companies have been one of the major holdouts when it comes to their lingering attachment to relentless, expensive television advertising. It has its place, but how much is too much? The ads show to everyone – over, and over, and over again. That feels wasteful, if ROI is your thing. If only there were better alternatives (and sufficient inventory) online, advertisers would be turning even more quickly to newer, proven digital response channels.

This newly-released study of the automotive sector by Bing delves into search behaviors and purchase journeys, providing some insights but few definitive answers as to where advertisers should turn next. One key point is that the “average journey” is 96 days. (That’s shorter than mine, which tends to start about a year before my lease is up. Ugh! Imagine trying to advertise to that guy!)

When we take on a PPC (search advertising) account in a competitive marketplace, a lot of the good answers (ad placements) will already be spoken for by competitors who have already figured out how good they are. That leads to the need for a brain-throbbing strategy intervention. To paraphrase Wee Willie Keeler, “hit ’em where they ain’t bidding through the roof already.” (“‘Em” in this case meaning the ads, and “they” meaning competitors. You’re hoping your message reaches the maximum number of hot prospects for the minimum price.)

There won’t typically be too many magic PPC bullets or uncommon insights in any sector that is heavily studied like this. But we can be pretty safe in concluding the following:

  • Many buyers have a “local, dealership” intent in mind, so they aren’t pure abstract “deciders”; they’re likely to pursue existing loyalties and patterns. They may be thinking about the distance to the dealership, the service quality over the life of the car, or even the quality of the coffee and the smiles in the dealerships. Convincing a prospect to come in for a test-drive makes a huge difference in what vehicle they buy, and possibly even how soon they buy it. If it’s a Subaru town, and the local Subaru dealership just re-opened in a shiny new location, the digital ad campaign should keep pace with the old-school radio ads promoting the grand opening. For those reasons, centralized marketing dollars ought to be pushed out even more to dealerships; ideally, more of those dollars would be earmarked for digital. Based on that, the dealerships (often, dealership groups) themselves need to move past boilerplate spends and get into more campaign planning. I’m biased, but I’d say they’d need to hire good PPC agencies.
  • Forget about closing the loop 100% to purchases in most cases. Just use the best channels and use as many proxy metrics as possible to measure the spend responsibly (dealer locator, book a test drive, enter a contest, etc.).
  • With their long and info-intensive purchase journey, we should accept that content may trump advertising for many car buyers. It’s the same as the person who spends a year deciding which Android phone to upgrade to. (How many times have I read those reviews, the spec sheets, etc.? Advertising alone won’t trump my pursuit of pure information.) We need to accept and understand the ways that ads complement the reader’s voracious interest in reviews, blogs, and news releases.
  • Remarketing, in-market, and contextual advertising methods are worth pursuing to the max.
  • Display advertising is clearly more appropriate to this type of industry than many others. Someone considering an Audi Q3 or Allroad might make an emotional connection with a BMW X4, a car they’ve barely considered in the past, if you show the the right picture of it at the right time.
  • Platforms like Facebook are ideal for this sector. It offers a brilliant combination of rich content with an ad program that can be adjusted in myriad ways to address behavior and demographics. Insofar as advertisers are using inferior display ad strategies involving the broader web, and are not tapping into the “captive” and more advanced walled garden of a Facebook, they’re missing out on a more reliable channel.
  • Search is brilliant for its long tail capability, and its association with high purchase intent. In terms of make-and-model queries, especially for current and future model years, it looks like brand advertisers are continuing to underspend. On some of the search queries I’ve been doing, not only do potential ad players not always show up (or show up at the bottom of the page), but they aren’t making full use of the ad extension space. Whether or not this is a cash grab conspiracy by the search engines, at this stage of the game, Google, Microsoft, etc. are bigger than anyone in any sector. You cannot engage them in a staring contest (“I should show up for my brand queries and show up good!”). On my query for “2017 BMW X4,” the first organic search result is from a no-name website called If you’re BMW, is that really where you want someone with high purchase intent to wind up? Not only would a higher PPC bid and better account management place a large, extension-adorned ad above that organic listing, but pushing budget out to dealerships would result in several BMW-led listings at the top of the page, pushing that mishmash of questionable organic content farther down the page. As for my example here, “Look, Ma! No ads!”


The bottom line: the automotive sector still needs to hone its approach to digital, including search. And while an obsession with brand feel makes sense given brand positioning — advertisers rightly spend a lot on websites and design in order to maintain a lofty image — this shouldn’t be at the expense of improved measurement of digital ROI. Automotive advertisers should continue to invest more in getting their new models considered as part of the “online buying journey,” in the places where consumers are engrossed in high-intent activity, whether that involves searching, reading content, or exchanging notes with peers. And dealerships should be incentivized to bleed out some dollars from their TV and radio ads, into the low-hanging fruit of search advertising in particular. Given the geotargeting capability of Bing Ads and Google AdWords, that’s an amazingly cost-effective way to target your best prospects.