August 10, 2007

Forrester Research reported this month in a new report (subscription or purchase required) that 29% of new-vehicle shoppers view automotive online consumer-generated media (CGM). Coincidentally, I purchased a Subaru Forester last month, and I fall fully into that 29%, and even the 4% of auto shoppers who create CGM!

Reflecting back on this significant purchase, the role of CGM was not only significant, but inextricably linked to my overall interactive and offline shopping experience. Here's how it went:

With a newborn son, a new house in the suburbs, and only a two-seater Jeep Wrangler, I had to rectify the situation and invest in a "parentmobile." My car shopping experience started offline by test-driving all the Crossover Utility Vehicles at the local dealers. The Subaru Forester quickly grew on my wife and me, and that's when my attention turned to the Internet.

To get a more accurate picture of my online shopping experience, I searched for all activities involving "Subaru" in Google History, a program that tracks most of my Web behaviors on my primary notebook PC. What quickly became obvious is that search, brand Web sites and CGM sources from ratings, reviews and auctions sites played a major role. In fact, I discovered well over 20 standalone Web sessions directly related to researching Subaru across these types of sites in the two months leading up to our purchase.

Here are highlights:

It all started with a series of visits to eBay Motors, to research the market for new and used Foresters, and get a feel from actual owners. I then logged onto Cars.com to check its inventory; I even used that site to begin reading customer reviews, and make contact with a number of local dealers for price quotes. I also began recording prices, models and features from the above sites in the del.icio.us online bookmarking service.

Three weeks into my research, and further leaning to the Subaru Forester, I found myself probing customer reviews pretty heavily. According to Google History, I searched Google for "Subaru Forester review," which took me to the Subaru car reviews and forums on Edmunds.com, where I returned numerous times. Then, paranoid over space constraints for a new and growing family, I did a Google search for "number of passengers a Forester can hold," which took me to reviews and customer testimonials on Autoworld.com, About.com Newcars.com and a Subaru press release hosted on PRNewswire.com (who ever said press releases were just for press?). My wife even contacted and polled some fellow members on UrbanBaby.com, a moms' forum, about the image and utility of the Forester.

Three weeks away from our purchase, and now completely convinced a new Forester was right for our us, I began frequenting the official Subaru.com site, to study all the specs and identify all the dealers in a 15-mile radius. I named the model I wanted and let the three closest dealers make me offers. They were all very similar, so I ended up going to the dealer that was closest, the most professional and courteous. This dealer even prompted us to check with our employers to see if they had any special VIP business arrangements with Subaru. My wife's publishing company did, which automatically gave us no-haggle dealer invoice pricing. We were sold, and drove away with our new white Forester on July 3!

Interestingly, in the eight weeks since our purchase, the Web and CGM have continued to play an important role in validating and driving value in our car purchase. For example, I still make frequent trips to Subaru.com to study the specs and review the possible accessories. I've also reviewed the Wikipedia entry for Subaru Forester to see how the "people's encyclopedia" depicts our new ride. My wife has even shared with our extended family members numerous pictures of us in our new car.

Additionally, I've received two online surveys from Subaru's CMO thus far. They're revealing of how Subaru is trying to understand and segment its customers, including me: probing into my lifestyle preferences, media usage, Web and device usage, perceptions of my self-image, social behaviors, what feelings I associate with the Subaru brand, and, of course, my satisfaction with the dealer.

While the vehicle's merit most influenced our purchase, there's no doubt that CGM, search, the brand Web site and the connection to the dealer storefront played a massively influential role in our decision. Of course, this relationship is only beginning, and we're now entering the owner phase, where satisfaction earns loyalty. I have no doubt the CGM and the interactive experience similarly impact this next chapter, including service, warranties, recalls, upgrades and aftermarket customizations.

I'll be sure to reflect back in a year to update you on how the experience continues. In the meantime, I really hope to see some return for all the time and effort I devoted to those long online surveys!

How does this compare to your car-shopping experience?

By Max Kalehoff
Max Kalehoff is vice president of marketing for Nielsen BuzzMetrics, and author of AttentionMax.com
Courtesy of http://www.mediapost.com

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