Canadian auto trends show the demand for cars hasn’t gone away — it’s gone digital

Claudia Worms Sciama, Mathew Growden / June 2020

Canada’s automotive industry knows disruption. It’s seen assembly plants open and close, the emergence of ride-sharing and ride-hailing services, and the invention of electric and driverless cars. Yet through all these changes, the end-to-end habits of Canada’s auto industry remained fairly traditional — until now.

The COVID-19 crisis has sped up the industry’s digital transformation, accelerating progress that could have taken years over a span of weeks. Now, auto marketers have awoken to the importance of reaching car buyers online and need to act quickly.

Some of these accelerated trends were emerging before the pandemic. In 2019, 43% of car buyers polled said they were likely or very likely to consider purchasing a vehicle online in the future.1 Despite the interest, many dealerships simply weren’t selling cars online. Now, the auto industry must adjust and quickly address gaps in the digital journey.

Consider the role cars will play in the ‘new normal’

People may be at home, but many are still relying on cars, and the pandemic is causing people to rethink their modes of transportation. While economic uncertainty may keep some people from purchasing, others may have a renewed interest in owning their own vehicle over relying on public transit. For example, one University of Toronto study found one-quarter of people say they will not return to transit until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.2

In April, global searches for "dealerships near me" grew by over 30% in a single week,3 and in Canada we’re seeing spikes in interest for “is it a good time to buy a car.4 We have yet to fully understand how trends will play out long-term, but research in China may offer some clues.

An Ipsos study in March found that in China, there’s been a shift in attitudes toward vehicle ownership, public transportation, and ride hailing services, and usage of personal or private cars has nearly doubled since the COVID-19 outbreak began. At the same time, reliance on public transportation fell by more than half, with taxis and ride hailing services each seeing significant declines.5

Auto brands and dealers should stay close to digital trends and analytics to watch for shifts in consumer behaviour.

Provide buyers with digital solutions

Expectations have changed and people want digital solutions to meet their new needs. Over 60% of Canadians looking to buy a car said they would use an online purchase option, while 17% would buy a vehicle sooner if there was an online purchase option.6

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People are also open to what the digital experience looks like, from their discovery phase to purchasing and perks like home delivery. A Google Consumer Survey found 66% of people viewed digital experiences and interactions as a good alternative to a dealer visit.7 An at-home test drive was considered the best alternative to a dealer visit with 33% of Candians seeing it as the most preferred option.8 This was followed by car review videos, an online configurator, a digital showroom, VR test drives and video conferences.9

Don’t just focus on the people buying cars now — think of ways to reach those who were planning their purchases, too. Between March and April, almost half of Canadian auto intenders surveyed still had consistent plans to purchase.10 Roughly one-quarter say they’ve prolonged the timeline of their plans to purchase, with most citing concerns about COVID-19 and economic uncertainty.11

Digitize processes at scale and add a human touch

Part of why the industry has been slow to adopt digital practices is because some stages of the journey still rely on in-person processes. Things like registration or insurance, or applying for financing and credit checks online can pose challenges when done digitally.

Marketers should take a cross-functional approach and audit each part of the consumer journey, then identify digital tools that can create a more seamless online experience for their customers and themselves. A great place to start is by making it easy for consumers to find and interact with their business.

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Ensure online information is accurate, transparent and up-to-date. Google My Business allows dealerships to keep their profile and products updated, ensure they are found on Search and Maps, and highlight relevant information and promotions.

Capture search interest during relevant moments of the buying journey by focusing on “ready to buy” keywords (think “can I afford it” or “where should I buy”). This ensures dealerships are speaking to qualified consumers. Find new keywords using tools like Google Ad Keyword Planner and Google My Business insights, and ensure ads are in good standing by maintaining a high optimization score. When consumers land on the website, implementing features like live video or video chat helps maintain a more personal, human approach.

Enabling phone call conversion tracking can also help you see how effectively your ad clicks lead to phone calls. On websites, have clear messaging and go easy on things like pop-us, modal windows and coupons. Video is a great way to show customers the safety precautions taken, and how new delivery methods work.

Consumer behaviours are continuously changing, and the auto industry must act quickly to address these new needs. Auto marketers need to keep on top of the changing dynamics and provide buyers with seamless, easy-to-use digital solutions in order to remain competitive and relevant in this changing landscape.

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