Your Dealership, Consumer Intent, & the End of the Traditional Marketing Funnel – PART 1

By Jazel Auto Marketing

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In recent years, there’s been a growing trend in the online marketing world — one that dealerships have been struggling with for some time. Shoppers are radically changing how they shop for vehicles, bucking expectations based on traditional marketing strategies.

This trend is finally exploding.

The traditional marketing funnel is the latest casualty of this period of disruption. Forget everything you knew about those standard, linear paths to purchase. The modern online car shopper journey is, well… all over the place.

And that’s a good thing. It means shoppers are doing what they want. Customer intent is finally getting its moment.

This is a neat topic, and we have a lot of information for you, so get ready for Part 1 of our exploration into changing shopper paths to purchase – and what this means for your dealership.


Intent: A Quick Definition and Explanation

Alright. Intent. This is the word we’ll keep mentioning, so let’s quickly cover the basics.

“Intent” is what you mean to do. That’s kinda vague, but intent can be like that. Basically, intent is the goal you have in mind when setting out on a course of action.

For car shoppers, the base intent is naturally going to be “get a car,” but their course of action (or more likely courses of action) can take many different turns, each with many moments of more specific and actionable intent. For example, “2019 honda CRV for sale near me,” and similar searches would indicate high-intent.

When it comes to dealership online marketing (and advertising), finding intent-rich moments and providing useful information is the central goal.

In digital marketing, intent is signaled by the shopper’s online behavior – the things they do that indicate their interests, and which can be used to predict their next steps and build specialized segments. That means what keywords they use when they search, sites they visit, ads they click on, videos they watch, and more.

Now, keep intent in mind as we continue down this road, because here’s how intent is driving the death of the traditional funnel:  


The End of the Dealer’s Traditional Marketing Funnel

If you’re involved in automotive marketing, you’re likely familiar with the automotive marketing funnel, so we won’t dwell on it too long.

The traditional marketing funnel demonstrates a narrowing, linear path to purchase that moves steadily through the standard stages – from awareness to consideration to purchase. As the basis for understanding customer journeys, this standard funnel has been a staple of marketing and advertising strategy, particularly online, for ages.

Well, say goodbye, because now it’s time to forget about all things traditional when it comes to car buying.

Research from Google has recently revealed how shopper’s journeys widen and narrow unpredictably, moving back and forth, and up and down the traditional funnel stages.

Now, before we launch into exactly how this change impacts your dealership’s digital marketing efforts (and boy, will it), let’s look into why this is happening now.

Part of a Larger Tech-Driven Trend

This change is, largely, though not entirely, driven by the mass proliferation of mobile devices. I know, yet another major shift we can attribute to mobile. That’s how much mobile matters, guys.  

Think about it. Once, people had limited access to information about the vehicles they wanted to buy, which forced them into more strict, unidirectional, and segmented purchasing steps — an information gathering step, a comparison step, and a purchase or decision point.

Now, however, as soon as a question strikes them, car shoppers can immediately turn to their mobile device to find the answer. Their purchase process isn’t constrained to the dealership or their home (like on a desktop), they can browse around online at any time and virtually anywhere.

This massive accessibility of information means that, naturally, people take advantage of it, and the purchase process shifts accordingly — away from the control of dealerships.  

Our new type of purchase path, one that moves all over the place, and is dictated by a single factor: the shopper’s desires. Accordingly, these new paths to purchase can look very different from one another.

For some, purchases are research-heavy. Shoppers move back and forth between considering brands to considering categories, exploring every option before they settle on what meets their needs. Others find a brand and product quickly, then find out everything they can about it, from videos to reviews, before they purchase.  

Here’s an example of how a car shopper navigates this new flexible path:

Example: Navigating the Intent-Driven Path to Purchase

Annalise is looking for a new truck.

She’s heard good things about Silverados, and a friend mentioned a local sale, and so she goes straight to her local Chevy dealership’s website. She looks at the models available, but they don’t appeal to her as much as she thought.

Now she decides to widen her search and re-evaluate her needs. She looks into smaller trucks first, considering multiple brands. She then decides that tow-capacity is her main concern, looks into other models, like SUVs with comparable towing capability.

After lots of research, she’s torn between two models, the Silverado, and the F-150. This conflict leads her to watch a series of walkthrough and truck comparison videos as she tries to pick between the two.

At one point, she sees an ad form her local Chevy dealer for their new Silverado specials. Annalise clicks to the site, checks the vehicle and browses inventory, then navigates to the Hours and Directions page, and makes her way to the dealership for a test drive later that afternoon.

Annalise’s path to purchase is FAR from linear and fairly chaotic, yet still steeped in research. Note that she widens and narrows her interests as needed, considers multiple categories of product, and picks the way she wants to buy.

Each of these moments is characterized not by a standardized funnel and straightforward path, but by her need at that moment: to find a new car with good towing ability.

Something particularly important for dealers to note about the new pattern is the post-sale behavior. The path to purchase might technically end at the sale, but that shoppers experience does not.

What are shoppers looking at and thinking about? What are their concerns? Ultimately, what post-sale purchase behaviors are shoppers getting up to, and what does this mean for your dealership’s marketing?

While it seems like enough to focus on what happens before the sale, these are important questions to ask. Customer lifetime value is actually one of the most important marketing metrics you can track when it comes to bettering your automotive marketing ROI.

But anyway, let’s refocus:

Car shoppers, like all shoppers, really just want information. They want to figure out the details and get what they want with a limited amount of fuss. Dealership digital marketing shouldn’t be about carefully shepherding users down a funnel and hoping to get as many to the end as possible. That’s really no better than a virtual cattle drive.

Now, the key to digital automotive marketing (and advertising) is offering value to the shopper — exactly when they’re looking for it.


In Part Two of this post, we cover the steps to aligning your dealership marketing with this exciting new trend. Read it here!