Attention American Automakers: Your websites suck

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The news from the big 3 automakers has indeed been grim. Year-to-date, GM sales fell 12.2 percent, Ford sales fell 3.8 percent, and Chrysler sales were down 4.9 percent. It has indeed been a bummer of a summer. There are many reasons for the auto industry troubles such as high gas prices, last year's incentive programs, high cost production, a skew to SUVs and other large vehicles at a time when smaller is better, and many other issues. However, one thing the industry can fix is the terrible official websites. Big three automaker sites suck.

Automakers Take Note: The web isn't TV

Why do automakers insist on copying one another's slick, TV-influenced, one-way broadcast websites that feel like advertising? Visitors who actually want to learn something aren't satisfied and sales are lost.

Check out the big three sites (I have included the headlines from today):
Ford: Model Year Clearance! 0% financing! 0 for gas!
Chrysler: Get employee pricing plus 0% financing!
GM: 72 hour sale!

Doesn't it look like all three of these sites were designed and built by the same person (some Madison Avenue ad guy)?

I looked around for some personality and useful content on these sites and was excited when I saw a link for "Ask Dr. Z" on the Chrysler site. "Cool," I thought, "Here’s some authentic content." But NO! It's a freakin' cartoon version of Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of DaimlerChrysler! Ugh. Beavis & Butthead & Dr. Z.

The individual brand sites are no better. Click on virtually any link to visit the site for a car or truck make. For example, over at Cadillac, it takes forever for the site to even load. During that long wait time, visitors are treated to the super-duper friendly message "LOADING VEHICLES. PLEASE WAIT." Nope, Sorry. I'm not going to wait. I don't want a Cadillac that badly. But thanks anyway.

Automakers Take Note: Please stop advertising to me and instead start a relationship

Automaker sites are organized with the assumption that the site visitor is ready to buy a car immediately. These sites employ slick TV-style ad marketing with Flash Video introductions and pop-ups offering discounts or low financing. Often automaker sites try to hook visitors into the dealer network before they're actually ready to buy. While there are certainly people who visit an automaker's site to find a dealer, learn about financing, and even buy right away, the large number of visitors who are simply browsing aren't satisfied by these sites and quickly leave. When automaker sites are too busy advertising, they lose the opportunity to educate and enlighten potential customers - developing a relationship with them that may pay off in the long run.

Automakers Take Note: Understand your buyers' sales consideration process

The last car I purchased was a Ford product – a 2002 Land Rover Freeleander – the second Land Rover in my household. The official Land Rover site was no help to me whatsoever during the buying process. Like many people, I considered a new car purchase for many months but there is virtually no content for the middle part of the sales process on automaker sites. Sure, you get flashy TV commercials at the top of the sales process (to lure buyers in) and low financing offers at the bottom (when you are ready to buy). But nothing for those people trying to narrow their purchase decision down to several vehicles.

So here's something WAY stupid that illustrates that automakers just don't get it. At least three times I submitted my email address to Land Rover. Once when I bought my latest car, once when I asked a question on the customer service site, and another time to get information on the Land Rover Challenge site. Each time I agreed that Land Rover can market to me via email. I WANTED to get emails from Land Rover! I wanted a relationship But no. Never heard from them. Did they ever consider I might be ready to by another Land Rover? Heck no. Why in the world don't automakers establish email newsletters to keep valuable customers up to date? Why not offer exclusive showings of the new models to existing owners via email? What about an owner’s blog?

Automakers Take Note: Put editorial experts in charge of your site, not agencies

Perhaps the reason so many automaker sites suck is because decision-makers entrust their organization's valuable Web site to an advertising agency. In the auto business, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on television and print advertising, a web site represents a small part of the marketing budget. So the marketing geniuses just fling the business to their ad agencies. Bad move. Advertising agencies' strong focus on grabbing attention is rooted in print and TV advertising models, not a content-marketing editorial model.

Guess what ad guys? When a visitor gets to a Web site, you don't need to grab their attention; you already have it! On the Web, the challenge has shifted from grabbing attention to informing and educating visitors through content. But most advertising people don't understand this and create ineffective sites as a result.

People aren't looking for TV commercials on the Web. They are looking for content to help them make a decision.

For an example of what's possible, consider Edmunds cool Car Space site. Car Space is a free social networking and personal page with things like photo albums, groups and much more.

Yeah, there are probably some good things about automakers web sites. Sure, some might be better than others. But as a worst practice example, we can all learn from the many mistakes that are immediately apparent on these sites.

Fixing sites won't cure Big Three woes. But it will help to establish relationships with customers that are sorely needed.