Mind share begets market share. Unfortunately, all the auto industry's attention is far downstream from the critical, early stages when a manufacturer first gets the customer's attention. Marketing is the first step in successfully acquiring new customers.
In the business-to-consumer (B2C) world, online retailers are unleashing eMarketing with a vengeance. The most successful eMarketers in this category—such as Amazon and L.L. Bean—are at the top of their respective industries. In the business-to-business (B2B) arena, most companies have barely scratched the surface.
This may be a costly oversight if B2C successes are any harbinger. New vehicle buyers, for instance, are heavily relying on the Internet for comparison shopping and opinion forming. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that are the most successful in marketing on the Web, hence, have a significant advantage to win that prospect's business in the end.
Auto suppliers, on the other hand, have marketed their wares for years, but only through traditional channels:
- Direct mail
- Industry trade shows
- Print advertisements
- Billboards, etc.
Most executives know well the importance of these programs. They build awareness far before the eventual purchase. Very early in the game they shape the prospect's sourcing specifications, product architecture, and perhaps even business strategy—all hopefully toward the strengths of that supplier.
Ignoring the Web as major marketing tool could leave a supplier blindsided. Far too late it may discover it effectively lost the business months earlier to a competitor that was more eMarket savvy.
Currently most suppliers are doing practically no eMarketing. The typical corporate Web site is little more than an electronic brochure. The more advanced companies like Visteon may now be putting some of their product catalogs on line. A very few are trying to manage their customers in a more unified manner through customer relationship management (CRM) software such as that available from Siebel.
Most suppliers' eBusiness initiatives are centered on a few areas:
- Transaction systems (e.g., Web-based electronic data interchange [EDI] between plants)
- Engineering collaboration
- Procurement (bidding, quoting, electronic specifications, etc.).
The process of winning new contracts, however, often begins far before these systems kick in. The vendor selection process, indeed, starts much earlier. This may be when the supplier first crosses a threshold and is considered a bona fide candidate for work in a new area by a big customer.
In marketing, suppliers aim to influence their customers' product architecture (e.g., increasing the aluminum content in the vehicle). They could hope to establish a strong image of their firm. For example Freudenberg-NOK promotes itself as a premier technology company; Visteon wishes to be perceived as a total-solution, telematics provider.
Successfully accomplishing such goals requires a firm to expose its audience repeatedly to the same message or image. To do so on the Web requires getting a prospect to repeatedly visit the marketer's Web site in order for that message to take hold.
Complicating matters is the plethora of interconnected sites on the Web where marketing messages are delivered, either directly or indirectly. Print media, such as this publication, have companion Web sites. For Automotive Manufacturing and Production it is autofieldguide.com. OEMs have their own sites; for instance, ford.com. Search engines such as Yahoo! may also link a visitor to a manufacturer's site either through banner ads or through the results of an explicit search. A multitude of these affiliate marketing programs can steer a visitor (for a fee) to a manufacturer's site. In addition, manufacturers may directly market to their audience through email campaigns.
A major challenge is simply to get a prospect's attention in the first place. This entails coaxing him or her to make that first visit to the manufacturer's site. In the B2C space, affiliate programs have been highly effective; they will likely perform the same magic in the B2B world, as well.
In addition, for a marketing message to hit home, a visitor must repeatedly come to the site. This means the site must be "sticky," to use eMarketing parlance.
Site requirements follow from these needs. For instance, the site must be constantly refreshed with new and, hopefully, exciting content. This draws visitors back over and over again. Secondly, a Web manager must closely monitor the site to learn
- How visitors are interacting with it
- Who they are
- Where they came from (e.g., URL directly typed? A link? From which site?)
- Whether they prematurely abandoned the site.
Special "clickstream" software can monitor visits, giving Web administrators extraordinarily comprehensive and detailed visitor logs. This software also produces invaluable summary reports indicating the most popular product areas visited, the most common navigation paths, etc. Examples of clickstream software include SurfAid Analytics from IBM and CustomerConversion from Quadstone.
Armed with this usage information, the Web administrator can continuously fine tune the site. This could be to improve ease of use. An example would be to minimize the number of clicks to reach the most desired page. Also critical is improving the responsiveness of the site. Indeed, no one wants to wait minutes for a page to download.
Especially for direct email campaigns a manufacturer must exhibit extraordinary sensitivity in order not to antagonize email recipients. This includes ideally marketing only to those who gave explicit permission to receive email from that company (i.e., "opt in"). Likewise, "unsubscribe" requests list should be promptly handled to avoid really infuriating some recipients who do not want such postings.
Security and privacy issues are paramount, as well. Whenever customer or prospect information is gathered electronically, the site administrator is obligated to ensure that that information is kept private. Consider the pitfalls that can develop: Imagine a site that registers visitors and stores this personal information on site. That repository may be extraordinarily vulnerable, unbeknownst to its creators. For instance, Microsoft's Front Page is a popular, Web-development package. An accompanying, Front Page database of user data, however, can be copied en masse by anyone on the Web; this information is treated as just another requestable Web page by the Microsoft software.
All suppliers pursuing an eBusiness strategy should minimally have eMarketing on their radar screens. Some contingency planning should be in the works even for those with no eMarketing initiatives. For instance, if a supplier is putting its catalog online, it should also implement reporting software to analyze that clickstream data of visitors.
Keeping abreast technologically of strong B2B sites is also important. This should include benchmarking-style visits to sites such as boeing.com and navistar.com. Also the "best B2B Web sites" are featured at netb2b.com. Contact with specialist vendors such as commerce service provider, Digital River Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN) is also very helpful; Digital River counts Federal Mogul (Southfield, MI) among its clients.
Among all suppliers, those selling to the aftermarket probably need to be the most eMarket savvy. One option now being weighed heavily by this group is outsourcing their eCommerce business processes to firms such as CommerceQuest (Tampa), Escalate, Inc. (Redwood Shores, CA), and Digital River. These firms have the infrastructure and services to act transparently as the commerce hub for the supplier. Minimal outsourcing costs per year are about $120,000. This contrasts with up to $250,000 simply to buy one Web hardware server for those electing the in-house alternative.
While eMarketing may seem blue sky to some suppliers, it could roar on the scene with breathtaking speed. B2C companies have fueled the extraordinarily fast development of this capability. The smart supplier firms will keep a close eye on this area, and capitalize on it as it becomes ever more powerful for the auto industry.