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Jupiter: Auto Manufacturers Need to Rev Up Web Marketing

Automotive manufacturers' efforts to use the Web to sell vehicles won't pick up speed until they beef up their online branding efforts, according to a new study by Jupiter Media Metrix.

Indeed, the study suggests that manufacturers' focus on generating online sales is actually hurting the Web as a promotional medium for their vehicles -- simply because most consumers still prefer to buy cars from real-world showrooms. As a result, ad dollars spent trying to close the deal online are largely wasted, according to the report.

"Given that most consumers will ultimately purchase an automobile offline, automotive advertisers will see little benefit in attempting to drive sales directly through online advertising," wrote Jupiter analysts Eric Horowitz and Jenna Pelaez in the study.

About a third of all online automotive impressions are spent in this way, according to the report. But since consumers aren't yet willing to buy cars online en masse, a better way for automotive companies to allocate their Web marketing budget might be to address the way consumers do shop for cars -- by researching online while buying offline.

"Automotive advertisers should emphasize awareness and positioning of their brand or particular features of their cars in order to provide information that then influences consumers' offline car purchases," Horowitz and Pelaez wrote.

While the automakers would do well to avoid focusing on completing the sale online, sites dedicated to automotive information could benefit from striking alliances with manufacturer, dealer or intermediary sites to actually initiate a sale.

Jupiter bases this conclusion on findings that consumer routinely go to the Web for vehicle information, but rarely is there a way to initiate a purchase once the consumer has that information -- even though these sites typically spend up to 94 percent of their impressions on driving traffic to their sites.

"Infomediary sites most often drive traffic back to major portals ... where consumers often begin their browsing sessions," Horowitz and Pelaez wrote. "Clearly, there is a disconnect for consumers that limits them from going further into the purchase decision making process, inhibiting the ability to narrow automobile selection and initiate contact with a dealer."

According to Jupiter, two-thirds of automotive sites don't allow consumers to access inventory information at a particular dealer -- potentially missing a valuable opportunity for referral income or a cut of the deal.

"In order to better facilitate off-line transactions, automotive sites need to coordinate efforts to promote a connection between sites specializing in reviews and vehicle information and sites specializing in providing price quotes, dealer inventories, and transaction initiation capabilities," Horowitz and Pelaez wrote.

Some players are doing it right, however. Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com has a partnership with GMBuyPower that links users with information and local dealers, while Ford's Web properties refer customers to Yahoo! Autos for independent reviews.