Friday, April 24, 2009

Automotive & Internet: towards online vehicle buying

Cap Gemini Cars Online 08/09 - 10th Annual Global Automotive Study
The importance of Internet for automotive industry is not to be demonstrated anymore (see previous post “Automotive & Internet: trends & challenges”). Automotive websites play a key role as they support customers during the purchase process, mainly during the awareness and consideration phases. Still the most important step - the purchase - happens offline but for how long?

According to Cap Gemini’s Car Online 08/09 report(1), online vehicle buying may become a reality as the one of the key changes consumers expect to see in the coming decade is that the whole purchase process will be done online.

Cap Gemini’s Car Online study – 10 years of global automotive study
The Car Online 08/09 is the last edition of Cap Gemini’s famous study on automotive industry. It was done in 2008 – during the gas price crisis but before the major financial crisis. So if you are after more information about how economical crisis is affecting customer online behaviour, you will have to wait for the next release.

For its 10th edition, the study not only looks back at the evolution over the last 10 years but also took the opportunity to expand the coverage of the research to new emerging markets: Russia, India and Brazil in addition to China. So if you are looking for information on automotive online trends for these markets, the Cap Gemini report is for you!

The emergence of social media and new online tools
With no surprise, the Internet continued to strengthen its position as primary source of information during buying process. In 1999, only 11% of respondents used the Web to research vehicles. In 2006, the number reached the 80% and climbed to 88% in 2008.

The Internet rise as a research tool
The report confirmed the increasing usage of new online tools & social media such as blogs, forums, customer reviews, RSS… especially in emerging markets like India. For example, in average 42% of respondents said to use automotive blogs. In India, they are 56%!

And online tools can have a significant impact on the buying decisions as the report explains that “almost three-quarters of consumers said they would be more likely to purchase a vehicle from a specific manufacturer if they found positive comments on blogs & forums”. So automotive manufacturers have to pay attention to these communication platforms.
The report also addresses other topics such as the importance of environmental aspects (the “green” effect) and customer satisfaction. However what I found particularly interesting is the “confirmation” of consumers’ interest in having the full buying process online – including the sale itself!

“Buy your car with a click of a mouse”
Buy a Toyota iQ online - just add it to your basket and check out!Many may found it is a silly idea but we are actually getting closer. Recently, in the context of buzz campaign, Toyota Finland launched the iQ Store where you can buy online a Toyota iQ (comes in two colors :-)), accessories and Finnish design objects. The site is actually built on an e-commerce platform so even if it is for marketing purpose, Toyota is technically the first manufacturer to sell cars online in Finland.

Peugeot, the French manufacturer already provides for a while the Peugeot Webstore in France where customers can search for a vehicle by dealership, budget, model, get prices & special offers, delivery time and arrange an appointment with a dealer. In a recent press release from Renault(2), the other French car maker announced that they will follow same path toward e-commerce with the launch of RenaultShops in France & Spain this year and later in Italy, Germany & UK.

In 2000, only 1% of consumers surveyed by the Car Online study showed interest in buying vehicle over the Internet. It was only 2% the next year therefore Cap Gemini stopped asking the question until reintroduced it in 2007. The number went up to 20% and it made a big jump in 2008. In total, 44% of respondents said they were very likely or likely to purchase vehicle online. There is a significant interest especially in the emerging markets like Brazil, India or China. Most skeptic consumers were from the U.S. where the number was less than 20% while it was around 25% in Europe.

Likehood to purchase vehicle over the internet

Common barriers to online buying
It is certainly too early to say that consumers’ desire for online purchasing will translate into their actual behaviour as barriers exist but most seems addressable. You could think that number one barrier would be the inability to negotiate pricing or having face-to-face contact with the retailer but these only come in 4th and 6th position respectively. Instead, inability to test drive the car or lack of full price and product information were the top 2 blockers. The second one can be easily addressed by improving the information that is available online. Regarding test drive, a solution would be to book test drive online and having the car brought to you, directly at your place. Wouldn’t it be cool?

Whatever happens, the vehicle buying behaviour will certainly evolve in that direction. It will lead to significant changes in the role of OEM’s and dealers. For example, retailers will focus more on services (test drives, financing, maintenance…) rather than sales.

Manufacturers need to get ready for it and be prepared for the future. They will need to overcome challenges and obstacles like regulatory roadblocks, technology hurdles, data integration (and I am not even talking about Web analytics)… Interesting times ahead!

Who will be first?
Does it sound like science-fiction? What happened in many other industries tend to make me believe it will happen. It will begin with the younger generation and early adopters. Once it will get started, it will probably grow fast even if it will take times before a majority of consumers buy their car online - many sales will still be made offline. The question is what manufacturer will be the first one to make the move? - Future will tell!

I will end with a quote from a Russian consumer taken from the Car Online 08/09 report: “Sitting at my computer, I will directly order a vehicle from the maker, making design changes. It will be put on the assembly line and I will have a unique vehicle. Funny maybe but we can buy furniture that way today so why not cars in 10 years?”

What do you think? Is buying a car online a silly idea? Do manufacturers play an important role for you when looking for a new car?

UPDATED 17-08-2009: Seems that selling cars online is not a silly idea. Not for General Motors. On the 10th of August, General Motors (GM) joined forces with eBay to test online car sales (http://gm.ebay.com). More than 200 dealers from California are selling models from GMC, Buick, Chevrolet and Pontiac. Customers can browse new 2008 & 2009 models, either buy it directly at the proposed price or make offers, ask questions to dealers and figure out financing. The test will be limited in time but one can imagine that if it is successful that it will be made available in other states and possibly for latest models. More info here.

(1) Capgemini Cars Online 08/09 “10th Annual Global Automotive Study: Tracking Consumer Buying Behavior in Both Mature and Emerging Markets”. Survey covers following markets: US, Western Europe, China, Russia, India & Brazil. It can be downloaded on Capgemini website(registration required).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Free "Improving Online Performances" seminar - Antwerp May 14th

NetprofilerIf you have missed past Belgian Web Analytics Wednesdays and their case-studies, Netprofiler is organizing a FREE seminar - "Improve online performances" on the 14th of May, 18:00 at the Ramada Plaza in Antwerp, Belgium.

The event will start by an overview of Web Analytics key solutions and latest developments. It will be followed by the presentation of three "success" cases.

Selexyz - largest bookshop in the NetherlandsThe first case will be about Selexyz - the Netherlands largest bookshop - and how it managed to increase its traffic from Google by 250% in half year through a successful Long Tail campaign with Google Adwords.



Support the World Wild Fund - save our planet!The 2nd case will explain how the World Wild Fund, a non-profit organization, leverage the usage insights collected from Web Analytics and A/B testing to more than double its fundraising conversion.


The last case will illustrate how PANalytical, a worldwide supplier of X-ray equipment, used website visitor behavior data to drive offline sales.

Case-studies will be presented by Frans Appels, managing consultant at Netprofiler and also founder & chairman of the Web Analytics Association in the Netherlands.

The event is open to everyone having interest in online marketing or Web analytics - whether you are a marketing manager, an online marketeer, a Web Analytics specialist or a Web Analyst.

You can register and find the full agenda and all details on Netprofiler seminar page.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Increasing online form conversion – some tips & best practices

Online forms - often turn your online experience into frustration
The great thing with Internet is that you have many services that used to be done in the offline world: you can ask questions to a company about its products. You can arrange a test drive on automotive site. You can register to a TV cable service, you can switch energy provider… You get the idea (and I am not even talking about e-commerce sites). All these services involve filling an online form at a certain stage. That is where online experience can turn into online nightmare and frustration. Online forms are often the Achille’s eels of many websites and I am still surprised – as an end-user – to see so many terrible “online” forms. While I do not pretend to be a usability expert, here are some tips & best practices from my own experience to make forms not only better for end-users but also for your business.

Shorten the completion path as much as possible!
Have a clear and shortest path to completionI think that whenever you have to design an application form, there are some principles and guidelines to follow in order to make it user-friendly, intuitive and most important effective.

Whatever the purpose, put all efforts to make the completion path as short as possible. You must reduce the number of interactions required from the users to complete the process. Temptation is high to ask a lot of “nice-to-know” questions but keep in mind that each additional interaction is an additional opportunity for the users to abandon.

Who is your target audience?
Think carefully about your audience and never – never assume users will use the form the way you do! You know your business by heart, you designed and built the form so you know what is the purpose of each field, what input is expected. Your audience does not! Consider the context: are you offering services to regular users? Or is it a service that users will use once in a lifetime or very rarely? Is it for experts or for common people? This aspect is very important but not always taken into account – we tend to extensively use our jargon that is unknown for the rest of the world.

Some tips & best practices
Considering the previous general principles, here are some rules and tips that you should try to apply to your own forms. Some are easy to implement, some are obvious (but then why are these often forgotten?). The list is far from being exhaustive but I think these are a good starting point.
  • Fit in the browser screen: long forms not only discourage users but also require them to scroll down – distracting them from the process and adding unnecessary interactions. It should fit in most standard resolution screens (check your browser stats) and if not possible, split it into multiple steps.
  • Reduce mouse usage: Ideally, it should be possible to fill the form only using the keyboard, tabbing through fields (watch out for the fields tab order). Requiring users to use the mouse to move from one field to another should be avoided - not only it is annoying but also it adds up “distractions”.
  • Clear & functional design: Forms are often seen as boring – especially when Web is all about flashy, colourful animated content. But hold on your horses and do not try to do the same with online forms. Keep them simple and clear – unnecessary visuals are distracting users from the main purpose (i.e. filling that damned form). Avoid “visual noise” – use a clean and neat design. Only use visual elements where it helps.
  • Logical process & flow: Filling a form should be a smooth process. Group data in logical blocks/pages and order them accordingly. A good logical structure will make the process more intuitive. If multiple pages, clearly indicate steps and show where users are in the process.
  • Process indicator: show end-users where they are in the process
  • Reduce cognitive load: End-users are lazy and in a hurry – they don’t like to think too much. Simplify their task: use radio button, dropdown lists (with limited choices), automated controls (address validation, calendar interface) and set default values according to context whenever possible.
  • Clear labels – use "customer" words: Ensure that questions and field labels are clear, leave no room for ambiguity and remember, no technical/marketing jargon (depending on your audience of course). Use "customer" language - not yours.
  • Provide contextual help: Show help/instruction text for each question whether dynamically (when accessing the field) or on user action (help icon). Indicate clearly what you expect and give examples when relevant (even if it is plain obvious for you).
  • Provide clear instructions about what is expected for each field and highlight errors
  • Clear error messages and handling: for me there is nothing more annoying then a form saying a generic message like "Invalid value. Please provide a valid value" and leaving it to me to figure out what I exactly did wrong. Highlight erronous fields and ensure that error messages provide enough explanations for the person to understand what needs to be corrected. Ideally validation should be done at field level when users move from one field to the next one.
  • Save data across steps: when your form is split over multiple pages, make sure that going back to previous step will not result in loosing data. High source of frustration and abandonment (I hate that when it happens :-().
  • Optional questions come after the conversion: Only ask first mandatory or key information. Forms are often seen as a way to collect lot of “marketing data” (what is your favourite color, when is your birthday…). However all these optional questions should come AFTER the main action is completed. Less data to fill – shortest path to completion, remember? Once the conversion occurred, feel free to ask whatever you want. And you will be surprised by the high percentage of users who will actually answer you (because they are so happy they managed to complete their request :))
Provide a summary and ask optional question after main request is completed
The next tips are not really for improving conversion because they relates to “after-conversion” aspects – still there are important to enhance the customer experience:
  • Confirmation message & summary: It is good to tell users that no gremlin prevented their data to be successfully processed. And thank them for using your service. Tell them something nice and explain them what will happen next. And even better, show them what they sent to you (so they can double check). And the cherry on top of the cake: allow them to modify their data in case of errors!
  • Keep users interested – bring them back to original context: In many case, filling a form gets you out of the original context and when completed, you often find yourself looking at a dead-end page (like “ok, you are done, bye bye”). In my work, I have observed that while around 50% leave the site after completing a request, the other half continues to explore the site. So why not bring them back to where they were when they initiated the process? Or suggest them other actions.
The latest version of WebTrends tagbuilder is a good example (even if it is a “specialized” application) as it applies many of the above tips: clear & simple design, detailed contextual help, error messages handling, shorten path to completion. All these improvements make the tool easier to use – especially compared to previous version (far too technical).

WebTrends tagbuilder new version enhances user experience with a neat & simple design, clear instruction and reduced cognitive load
At Toyota Motor Europe, we implemented new forms that open in an overlayer (no pop-up – avoid them at all costs) – not only forms fit in a regular browser screen but it keeps users in original context so they can continue exploring the site when done. Also we provide a summary screen and the ability to correct data if any errors.

Opening forms in an overlayer keeps user in original context

What else?
As a Web Analyst, make sure to measure the overall process so you can identify leaks.

Usability labs are really great to find out usability issues and collect user insights – most of the time you may miss obvious flaws that real users will find in few seconds. But as labs can be costly, they are recommended if you plan a major redesign otherwise do some A/B testing.
Don’t aim at the perfect online form from start but try to build a good one and do small improvements (Kaizen) based on lessons learned, measurements & tests.

If you plan a major redesign and if forms are business-critical for you, consider calling upon a usability expert.

What do you think? Any tips/best practices that you think are really important for improving online form conversion and/or user experience?

If you want more, here are some related articles/resources:

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