How Dealers Should Be Marketing For the Messy Middle

By Jazel Auto Marketing

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Marketing | 16 min Read

How Dealers Should Be Marketing for the “Messy Middle”

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Picture the car shopping process as a sandwich. A really messy one. The kind that you have to keep reassembling while you eat. Sure, it has bread at the beginning and the end, but once you take a bite, it’s pretty much just chaos.

It’s that messy, delicious chaos in the middle that we want to focus on today – because that’s where your best dealership marketing opportunities are. In this post, we explore the exact processes that customers use to navigate the messy middle of their shopping journey, the cognitive influences that motivate their actions, and what lessons this has for your advertising and marketing. 

The Beginning 

The car shopping process begins and ends with simple actions – the decision to begin looking for a car, and the decision to purchase a specific one. These moments are the “bread” in our messy sandwich metaphor. 

Source: Google

 Inspiration is probably one of the more simple moments of the car-shopping process. Your car breaks down, it’s getting to the hand-me-down stage, or it just seems to be the right time for a new vehicle. Sometimes seeing an awesome advertisement can be a trigger for some people – just the excitement they needed to begin the process they’ve been considering, but as the dealer, you don’t need to concern yourself with this moment too much. If you can convince someone right at the start, that’s perfect, but it’s a tricky and expensive tactic.  

Expert Tip -> That being said, you want to be making memorable moments with shoppers from the start, so strong supportive SEO and excellent representation in other first-contact areas is always something to invest in.

The Middle – How Auto Shoppers Make Their Choices

Once the inspiration hits, shoppers begin a process of back-and-forth exploration and evaluation. These processes expand and contract the number of options they are considering, and eventually zeros in on the car they will purchase. 

This shifting, non-linear process is what Google calls “the messy middle” of the shopping journey. And they’re right. Don’t think about the shopping journey as a path that shoppers work their way along – it’s a lot more nuanced than that. 

Let’s dive into the two behavior patterns in our “messy middle”: 


During this phase, shoppers expand their consideration, looking at more vehicles, different brands, and getting a feel for the variety that is available to them. Exploration is all about asking questions and gathering information. Many a google search is conducted during this phase, and they’re all focused on navigating the information necessary to make their decision. 

For some, exploration may be very limited. They essentially already know what they want and the only thing they have to determine now is which dealership to buy from. For others, this will be a process that starts with googling a question like “what kind of car should I buy?” 

When the shopper has expanded their options and gathered enough information to make determinations, the next phase begins – evaluation. 


As the options build-up, shoppers narrow them down. They re-evaluate their choices, selecting the relevant and discarding the disqualified. This can be as simple as a family picking their desired color from what you have on the lot, or more complicated, like someone slowly narrowing down their 25 top-choices based on amassed user reviews and test-drive videos. 

Evaluation will shift the shopping process from moments of expansion to moments of contraction – eventually ending in decision making, but often leading back into the exploration process as evaluation reveals new desires, goals, and motivations. 

As shoppers move back and forth between exploration and evaluation, their actions and directions are influenced by a variety of factors – the six shopping biases.  

Shopping Biases – The Cognitive Factors in Auto Sales 

According to Google’s analysis of this “messy middle,” there are six different motivating factors that influence people as they go through their car shopping process. 

  1. Category heuristics: These are short descriptions of key vehicle specs that help simplify purchase decisions.
  2. Power of now: Having to wait for a product weakens the proposition.
  3. Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others are highly-trusted and motivating. 
  4. Scarcity bias: As availability decreases, pressure to purchase increases.
  5. Authority bias: People are often swayed to some degree by an expert or trusted source.
  6. Power of free: Offering a free gift with their purchase (even if completely unrelated) can be a powerful motivator.

Incorporating these cognitive influences into your advertising and marketing can give you a measurable advantage over the competition. 

Google found that fictional brands performed better than preferred brands when marketing and advertising included these motivating biases. In one example, a fictional car insurer won 87% share of consumer preference when their marketing was “supercharged with advantages across all six biases”.

So how do you make sure your own advertising lives up to its potential?

Applied Advertising Advice From the 10TH DEGREE Experts

So what does all this mean for your day-to-day dealership marketing? Well, we tapped the experts at 10TH DEGREE Automotive Advertising for their outlook. Here are their recommended strategies for succeeding in the Exploration and Evaluation cycle. 

Why You? 

Give the shopper real, value-able, easy-to-understand reasons for choosing your dealership over the competition. While users are exploring and evaluating make sure your advertisements explain why they should choose you vs your competitor. 

Be There

Be there with your programmatic efficiency. Diversify your advertising efforts. Be there when users are watching test drive videos (programmatic video ads). Be there when users are actively searching (paid search). And be there when users are out on the web (programmatic banner ads)

Keep Your Cool 

Don’t over saturate. Make sure you’re using a frequency cap. You don’t want to hit users 12x in an hour. It’ll turn them off more than anything. When users are continually going back and forth doing research and making decisions, there’s a good chance they’ve seen your ads a few times, no need to make sure it’s on every page they visit.