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The right data strategies can help automakers connect and accelerate their customer journeys.

The right data strategies can help automakers connect and accelerate their customer journeys.

Today’s automakers and their customers are experiencing historic change. Tesla has disrupted the marketplace by driving demand for electric vehicles and the ability to shop for them online. COVID-19 and digital marketplaces like Carvana have further accelerated consumers’ willingness to buy and finance cars online. Before the pandemic, only 35% of shoppers would consider buying a car online. Afterward, that number jumped to 60%.

However, online shopping is a lot more complicated for the auto industry than for an industry like retail. When consumers buy a car, they must toggle between digital properties owned by auto brands, dealers, and finance companies. It can be a confusing and frustrating experience requiring buyers to provide the same information over and over. It’s also challenging for auto industry marketers who struggle to connect scattered interactions on various companies’ websites to individual customer identity.

Today’s consumers, empowered by increasingly stringent privacy regulations, often opt out of cookies that allow them to be tracked from one website to another. This severely limits the ability to stitch together customer behavior across domains, which has a big impact on the auto buying experience. For example, automakers may not use cookies that their brand website left on a potential buyer’s device to track the customer when they go on to visit a finance or dealer site. And when Google Chrome ends support for third-party tracking cookies, tracking customer journeys will become even harder.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of data generated by the auto buying experience is now or soon will be anonymous. To make buying cars online easier and more seamless for customers, marketers must adopt new strategies for piecing together multi-company journeys while complying with privacy laws and standards. And they must find ways to gain insights from data, even when they can’t associate it with specific customer identity.

Adobe Professional Services recommends five steps for auto companies that are ready to rethink their relationship with customer data and start improving their customer journeys.

5 steps to a better car-buying experience

Based on our conversations with Adobe customers, a growing number of auto industry players have shifted their focus to the digital customer journey. They are exploring options for building closer partnerships with the companies whose customers they share to simplify the process of buying a car online — from getting custom price quotes to applying for financing and picking up the car at a local dealership.

We suggest starting with these five steps when you’re ready to connect and streamline the car buyer’s journey.

1. Map your customer journey and locate your journey data

Before you can improve your customer journey, you need to know what it looks like. You may find that it’s unexpectedly complex. You can map your customers’ buying journey by:

2. Define a unique customer identifier

A unique identifier is a piece of data that is common to all your sources of customer data. If you want to track a customer’s behavior as they move toward buying a car, every record describing this customer’s experiences must include the same identifier. That way, those experiences can be stitched together into a meaningful profile.

One of the most common unique identifiers emerging in other industries like retail and even financial services is a customer’s email address. Emails are often hashed (encrypted) to protect personally identifiable information. Hashing can be used to reconcile identities across multiple platforms while minimizing privacy risks.

Of course, in order to use the customer’s email address as your common identifier, you must convince them to share it with you and to opt in to receive marketing communications. Most online retailers now provide special offers and other incentives to encourage customers to share their email addresses and opt in to cross-domain experiences. While the auto industry feels a bit more fragmented across sites, we believe automakers could benefit from similar approaches. For example, auto dealers could ask customers to opt in to receive marketing information, and in return, the customer would get a coupon for their scheduled routine maintenance and other services.

Unfortunately, not all of your existing data sources will include your chosen identifier. Opt-in programs like the ones described above can help you enrich existing records. This is a critical step to building unified customer profiles.

3. Build unified customer profiles

Unified customer profiles give you greater visibility into a customer’s behaviors throughout the buying journey — comparing prices online, taking a virtual test drive, seeking service, and so on. A customer data platform, also known as a “CDP,” connects this data via a customer identifier and combines it into a profile.

Analyzing profile data can help you flesh out your journey map and understand how long each stage of the journey takes. It can also help you spot bottlenecks and other issues that can cause customers to switch between properties or end their journey altogether. For example, a customer who’s trying to buy a car online might abandon their purchase if they can’t easily find a local dealer where they can pick up their new vehicle.

In the Adobe technology ecosystem, Adobe Real-Time Customer Data Platform helps companies build customer profiles and continually update them in real time. And Adobe Customer Journey Analytics allows companies to analyze profile data to better understand the customer journey.

4. Enrich profiles with data from partners while complying with privacy regulations

As previously noted, the auto industry is highly fragmented. However, building strong partnerships where appropriate can help companies work together to streamline customer journeys and increase sales. Sharing data in ways that are safe and compliant with all relevant privacy rules can be a valuable part of these relationships.

For example, an automaker and its financing arm might work together to make a loan application part of a single, connected online car-buying process. To make this happen, the two companies would have to agree on a unique identifier, map out the ideal customer journey, and establish rules for a safe exchange of data.

Because data privacy laws and standards can be complex and challenging to implement, Adobe has made data governance a central feature of Adobe Experience Platform. Our clients rely on it to manage customer data and to ensure compliance with the various regulations, restrictions, and policies that apply to data use.

5. Use anonymous data to measure the success of your marketing activities

Identity resolution will never be perfect. For example, your customer may use different email addresses to sign up for different offers. Parts of their customer journey may be owned by dealers that sell competing brands and are thus not suitable for data-sharing partnerships. And some customers will always opt out, no matter what you offer them.

But you can still use anonymous data to track how your marketing efforts are helping customers move through the journey and to identify where they may be getting stuck. Careful data analysis can show you where your web traffic is coming from and how users interact with different experiences to drive cross-property journeys.

For example, you might look at what percentage of visitors to a particular truck’s home page choose to fill out a lead form for local dealers. You can correlate the propensity to fill out a lead form with behaviors like creating a custom build, using a price calculator, and so on. You can also cross-correlate these behaviors with known customers to tease out their true value.

Let Adobe take the wheel

Because auto industry customer journeys can be so complex, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, especially as the end of data from third-party tracking cookies approaches. For most companies, a good place to start is to map out the customer journey and define a customer identifier. From there, you can start gaining insights into where your existing customer journey falls short — and how you can drive improvements.

Adobe Professional Services can help you start building your customer journey today.

Ian Houston is a customer experience architect with Adobe Professional Services. He has been helping Adobe customers integrate their technology ecosystem for 15 years, partnering with Adobe’s auto industry customers for 10 of those.