When the Winton Motor Company placed what is likely the first car advertisement in Scientific American back in 1898 with the headline “Dispense With A Horse” -, little did it know that the craft of auto marketing would barely change in the next 119 years.

By contrast, today’s digital advertising techniques would, to Alexander Winton, look like magic.

We all recognize the traditional car ad. Manufacturers focus on consumers’ lifestyle preferences, found through rudimentary demographic targeting. Dealerships, down the funnel, shout to in-market customers about their prices and trustworthiness. TV and print have historically ruled the roost, but digital is making strides.

After two decades of the internet, OEMs and dealers have dabbled in the digital world, investing  in banner ads and Facebook ads but what has really happened is not a reinvention but a migration. The industry has not reimagined  the way it sells car but, rather, has simply cut and pasted  old techniques to a new medium.

Specifically, makers and dealers are still using a traditional marketing approach to finding a broad and loosely interested audience in an effort to uncover the few truly relevant and receptive target consumers – buying 10,000 users from the haystack just to find the 4% needle.

They congratulate themselves as pretty smart for tracking ad clicks to their sites using Google Analytics. But page views are the equivalent of TV or radio ratings, or print circulation; tracking them tells you nothing about the real intent of the people behind the screen. If a third of the people who land on your Nissan Altima page also browse your 370Z listing, are they really potential buyers for the sports car or were they sedan buyers simply ogling a car they will never own?

The inefficiency of today’s ad model, however – just like that of aging, dirty cars before it – could soon look like an anachronism.

Proliferation of new consumer devices, the abundance of data they provide and advanced artificial intelligence all together are about to turn the auto marketing craft on its head. It will take us from an unsophisticated search for the right audience, to a world of certainty, in which algorithms will identify with certainty whom to target and when.

The future will arrive in two stages. The first is the smarter triangulation of data sources to narrow down the pool of prospective buyers. Better than that, it brings the ability to reach out with a very high degree of efficiency, a one-to-one value proposition that will allow marketers to identify the exact car suitable for an individual or a small group of individuals – no longer a mass of 20,000.

It is not too sci-fi to envision a world in which marketers have access to consumers’ shopping behavior, online form submissions, location characteristics and car ownership records.

Much of consumers’ lives is now mediated online, with data being collectable and actionable. Many ad-buying platforms today allow marketers to buy against datasets like credit card behavior, TV viewing behavior, family size and so on, all above and beyond rudimentary demographic targeting and already available to platforms via firms like Acxiom, Neustar and, yes, Nielsen.

Then there is the data that car makers and dealers themselves hold. If you layer in customer service histories, known lifespans of car models, available finance offers and so on, it becomes possible to refine messaging to particular customer circumstances, marketing an upgrade or replacement to the right car at just the right time.

All of this will significantly improve return on investment. But even this is just an inversion of the traditional auto advertising practice. The next gear shift will really shake things up. It is a world in which sales processes – driven by artificial intelligence, machine learning and mobile devices – produce sufficient information about consumers to pro-actively make recommendations, as if there were no traditional sales and marketing at all.

To achieve this, marketers are going to have to identify and clean up data assets that are well defined and well organized. Data will be key to driving the next marketing journey, and brands are going to have to think about how they make that available to Siri, in which formats, whether they have their store locations available in a machine-readable format, whether they can plug in to system APIs, and whether their inventory database is visible to show available models for purchase.

If we can get over this hill, the industry is set for one hell of a ride. I’m sure Alexander Winton would be amazed.

Author: Eric Brown

Eric Brown, President of LotLinx, is a noted industry speaker and expert with appearances at the SAE Automotive Global Leadership Conference, NADA Leadership Summits and JD Power and Automotive News Marketing conferences among others. He has also been a guest automotive expert on Fox News and quoted in numerous publications such as Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Forbes. In 2012, he was named Nashville, T.N. “Innovator of the Year.” Eric Brown is a graduate of Missouri Southern State University with additional studies in executive leadership from Harvard University and e-commerce strategies from Columbia University.

Digital Dealer