While online advertising offers greater accountability than any other medium, measurement of online campaigns is still far from being a science. While your lead management tool can be a great starting point to understanding performance, there is a lot it won’t tell you.

When I started my career in online automotive, what excited me most, aside from the internet’s unique matchmaking abilities, was the transparency and accountability the medium offered its advertisers. Unlike a billboard on Route 21, we are able to see with precision where a lead originates, how it progresses through the funnel and when it becomes a sale. Simply no other form of advertising so clearly demonstrates its value. But I have to stop and ask, Are we really seeing the full picture? Given all that is traceable online, are we losing sight of what’s not?

Evaluation of our business is often so focused on email leads and call metrics we tend to lose site of the larger objective – traffic and sales. When we place an ad online for either a new or used vehicle, the ultimate goal is to match consumers to the right inventory and drive them into the store where they ultimately make a purchase. The most effective online advertising drives quality traffic in multiple ways and on all types of inventory. Whether it’s in the form of an email, a phone call, a visit to your store’s website or a step into your showroom, effectively placed online ads should deliver in-market shoppers who are progressing toward a final purchase decision. While email and phone leads tracked through your lead management system are the most concrete evidence of this impact, they only represent a fraction of what online advertising delivers.

Getting the Whole Story

To get the complete story and better measure the holistic value of online campaigns, it’s time to look beyond lead management tools and the data they offer. We must start understanding what the limitations are of online tracking and start placing value on the intangibles that often do not readily reveal themselves. This is what we have always done with other forms of advertising, radio and TV.

So what else do we need to look at? Here are just a few things to keep in mind when evaluating online performance that your lead management system can’t and won’t know.

  • Not all new-car leads are equal, and they can’t be measured as if they were. Until recently, nearly all new-car leads were the result of online quote request products that drove email leads to the dealership. Buyers interested in a particular make and model would email the store to learn more about your price and you could easily track these prospects through your lead management system. New-car value from online services was easily measured – you’d simply divide your monthly cost by the total number of vehicles sold based on leads received to arrive at an accurate cost per sale. While this is still the right way to measure lead generation services that deliver quote requests, it will not give you an accurate measure of performance when advertising new-vehicle inventory online.
  • New vehicle inventory is rapidly displacing request for quote leads as the dominant model in automotive internet. Consumers want to see actual new cars available on dealer lots, and manufacturer sites, dealer sites and leading independent websites are all listing new vehicles on their sites to meet this growing consumer demand. This dramatic industry shift has consequences and requires a shift in measurement that your lead management tool won’t fully be able to capture. Just as with used-vehicle listings, consumers are free to link from new-car inventory to the physical store by means that can be tracked, such as phone and email. But they can also simply walk into the store with no traceable online activity. How will your lead management system track these buyers? Chances are, you may not be able to. Therefore, the next time you compare new-vehicle advertising sources, be sure you are not comparing apples to oranges based on the numbers in your system. You can evaluate one request for quote service against another, but you’ll be giving inventory services the short end of the stick if you only measure them on email value delivered, which is a fraction of their total worth.
  • Internet customers don’t come with labels. Nearly 80 percent of all shoppers now go online as part of their automotive research process, but only a small fraction of those will ever send an email lead or call a traceable phone line. During the online research process, shoppers are deciding both what to buy and where to buy. If you’ve effectively marketed your store, buyers will come into contact with your brand at multiple touch points in their online shopping process, including listings, search engine results and perhaps a visit to your website. It’s in that process that they are deciding if you are a dealership they might like to do business with. If the answer is yes, the majority of shoppers will walk through your door to learn more about a vehicle, take a test drive or inquire about financing. Because these walk-in customers don’t identify themselves in most cases as an internet shopper, your lead management tool never knows they took the bait. How will you source the sale? A postsale survey administered in the F&I office is recommended to better understand the true source of walk-in traffic. Getting a true source can be difficult, as even when asked, shoppers can’t always clearly articulate what influenced their decision to visit the store. In most cases, it will be multiple sources.
  • Engagement matters. Consider this: The average shopper on Cars.com spends approximately 60 seconds with a detailed vehicle listing page. That means your store and your inventory are the focal point of attention with an in-market buyer for a full minute of active consideration. Online shoppers are actively engaged in the process, and most take the next step toward purchase without ever picking up the phone or sending you an email. Despite the fact that online engagement and activity is often behind the sale, your lead management system won’t ever give you details on engagement levels, nor will it look for a correlation between recent online activities and sold vehicles. To better understand the value of engagement and its impact on sales, look to your online providers for detailed reports on what customers are doing online, how often your vehicles appear in detailed search results, and how many times buyers print your listings and directions to your store.
  • Buyers don’t always take a direct route to your website. A quick scan of the lead management report in most dealerships will tell you that their own website was their No. 1 lead generator. It makes perfect sense that this is the case. After all, most buyers visit the dealership’s website as they approach the final stage of their shopping process and get closer to making a purchase. But to measure your campaign more effectively, consider what sources are driving traffic to your site. In some cases, the path buyers take to your virtual store will be clear – a transfer from a third-party listing, a search on a leading engine, etc. But in many cases, buyers will visit you directly. In these cases, it’s important to remember the cumulative effect of all of your marketing efforts that work to drive this web traffic. Chances are good that many of the buyers who land on your site have already completed their online research with third-party sites. If you’ve stayed in their consideration set, odds are they’ll visit your site as a next step before visiting the store and making a purchase.

Regardless of what you choose to track and what can be effectively measured, it’s clear that online advertising has proved its value beyond the leads that can be clearly demonstrated. Isn’t it time we turn our attention to the big-picture results?