The Future of Auto Marketing Could Be a Little Creepy

Get ready for brands to follow you everywhere

If the automotive industry can be seen as a bellwether for digital marketing, get ready for some seriously precise targeting that straddles the line between powerfully scientific and creepily intrusive.

During a lively presentation at the J.D. Power Automotive Marketing Roundtable event in Las Vegas, Yong Sung, svp and digital group client director for MediaVest, and Duncan McCall, CEO and co-founder of the mobile data firm PlaceIQ, laid out a current campaign designed to target in-market car buyers, one that tracks people from the moment they begin contemplating making a purchase to the moment they leave their house and head to the dealer.

According to Sung and McCall, auto brands are currently testing using actual vehicle registration data, blended with data from auto researchers like Polk and location data from their personal mobile devices. The pair showed maps tracking groups of car shoppers as they traveled from place to place in their own neighborhoods, and laid out scenarios where they might be able to deliver ads to these folks as they visit physical dealer locations, and different ads as they go across the street to a competitor’s dealership.

“We can remarket to consumers who have been to a car lot,” said Sung. “This is about triangulation … we can do this on a national scale."

Until recently, behavioral targeting has been limited to retargeting consumers on their desktops based on their Web surfing history, Sung explained. But now, he said, “Where you go is who you are. And we know where you live, where you’ve been and where you are going.”

Whether or not a mobile banner ad, even with this level of precision targeting, can spark someone to buy a $40,000 car is still very much up for debate (as Weather Company chief global revenue officer Curt Hecht put it during a panel on Thursday), “Banner ads are really difficult on mobile … most peoples' thumbs accidently click on them.” And many think auto brands have been oversold on the Web.

Regardless, Sung said brands are already trying these sorts of powerful targeting tactics. And besides mobile ads, Sung added, this data cocktail of vehicle registration and location information could inform TV campaigns and direct mail.

While such a mobile-heavy, privacy-envelope-pushing approach may make some brands uncomfortable, the auto companies may have no choice, according to Clayton Stanfield, senior manager of dealer outreach for eBay Motors. That’s because the millennial generation, the auto industry’s next crucial target, lives this way.

Stanfield said that millennials won’t tolerate the typical four-hour experience of buying a car from a dealer. They’ve done all the research on models, financing, etc., and they expect the experience to be quicker than the local sales guy wants. And they expect to be able to whip out their phones to comparison shop while they're walking the car lot. “There’s a huge disconnect,” said Stanfield.

Lee Nadler, marketing communications manager for Mini USA, concurred. "People used to visit seven dealers. Now its 1.2. They do all the shopping research ahead of time. There is no linear funnel any more. And touch point by touch point, we have to sell cars.”

Particularly to those millennials—who were a big theme at the show—as the industry grapples with research showing that young Americans care more about smartphones than Mustangs

One obvious way to court the millennial demo is through social media. During a fiery keynote speech on Wednesday morning, Michael Accavitti, svp of automotive operations for Honda, referenced a socially-led campaign the company executed this past summer centered on the theme of saving American drive-in movie theaters.

Accavitti also showed clips showcasing Acura’s product placement in Jerry Seinfeld’s Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, as well a two-minute Web video spot for Honda Civic featuring Nick Cannon (which has reached 2.5 million viewers and generated 70 million impressions) as examples of how the brand is targeting the young digital demo. “We have to figure out how to target millennials, and this increasingly multicultural demographic,” he said. “And we have to try things that might not work.”

But perhaps tellingly, the culmination of Honda’a social campaign for drive-ins was a warm and fuzzy TV spot. And Accavitti showed four other heart-string-tugging TV spots during his keynote, exhibiting that for all the talk of mobile and social, Honda’s bread and butter is still old-fashioned national TV.