Entries from August 2010 ↓

More auto sites turning to syndicated video content

The automotive purchase experience isn’t just about a list of features or squeezing out the best deal or even a convenient dealer location.  Buyers want to know how the vehicle truly looks and feels, as well as how it will make them feel.  There’s no substitute for test driving, but shoppers who aren’t ready to hit the dealer lot can rely on online video to address many of their research needs.

With video now an expected part of the online experience, no major automotive site can afford to NOT have it.  There’s certainly a lot of it available.  Every major automotive website gives its visitors the ability to video test drive the vehicles and perhaps take detailed video tours.  OEM sites, in particular, will sometimes produce video that highlights features, functionality, heritage, how-to instructions, etc.  Of course, OEMs have an inherent advantage in the video arms race, as they can repurpose video creative from other corporate sources.

One major player behind this trend is WheelsTV.  The site bills itself as “Automotive Internet Television” and offers a range of videos covering auto shows, motorsports, classics, test drives, etc.  It’s the latter category that has proven especially popular on other automotive sites, allowing WheelsTV to become a major syndicator of automotive videos.

Their most popular products are their Quick Vehicle Profiles and New Vehicle Test Drives.  These videos are incorporated into some of the most-visited third-party automotive sites, including:

  • AOL  Autos.  Profile and test drive videos.  Also offers DriverTV videos for many 2010 models and those prior to 2010 (when available), e.g. 2007 Toyota Camry.
  • Autotrader.  Profile and test drive videos.
  • MSN Autos. Test drive videos, including older models, e.g. 2008 Lexus SC 430 and 2009 Toyota Camry).  Shows ads before the videos, while the other portals do not.
  • NADA Guides.  Test drives videos delivered via Vehix.
  • Vehix.  Test drive and auto show videos.  Even though Vehix produces some of its own video content (175 total), WheelsTV dominates the video section (711 total).
  • Yahoo Autos: Profile and First Look Videos.  The latter is focused on new entries and redesigned vehicles.

The same content can also be found on general video sites such as YouTube and DailyMotion, which creates broader brand exposure and ancillary ad-based revenue.

Cars.com produces its own video reviews, featuring an individual reviewer doing the video walk around.  From a consumer point of view, the videos are less slick but clearly differentiated as coming from cars.com – it’s not the same thing you see everywhere else.  Cars supplements this content with [much longer] video reviews from MotorWeek.

I was also surprised to find an OEM among the WheelsTV licensees.  Kia utilizes the profile and test drive videos for multiple models, including the Borrego, Forte, Forte Koup, Rondo, Soul, and Sorento.  In the plus column, the independently-produced content is a unbiased assessment of Kia’s vehicles, which should evoke greater consumer trust.   On the downside, the videos contain zero branding, which is a critical function of the OEM brand site.  Additionally, by abdicating the responsibility of producing the content Kia leaves itself vulnerable to having none at all, as shown below with the Sedona.

Consumer research needs varies so greatly that it has become impractical for any single site to produce the full range of content.  Third party sites have to pick and choose what they create themselves and what they license from others.  It’s clear that video has fallen into the latter category.

The Flash vs. HTML debate: OEM sites enter the fray

This spring, Steve Jobs reignited a long-standing debate between Flash advocates and the technology’s detractors.  Jobs posted a long letter on Apple’s site explaining, point by point, why Apple chooses not to support Flash on the iPhone, iPod, or iPad.  Since the resurgence of this Flash debate (but really, since the debut of the iPhone), major brands have been grappling with the most efficient way to provide a mobile Web experience for their iPhone and iPad users.  Some brands provide a separate mobile site for mobile users.  Others choose to make their primary site mobile-friendly.

Over the last 18 months, we have begun to see automotive manufacturers quietly scaling back their Flash implementation.  In some cases, brands are dropping their Flash sites entirely and launching HTML-based sites.  For example, for Wave 2 of the 2009 Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation Study (MWES), which was fielded in April 2009, Acura converted its all-Flash site to all-HTML while maintaining many of the same navigation features.

Initially, Acura’s MWES scores declined a bit (-7 pts overall, -17 for speed, -1 for navigation), but still ranked #9 overall.  The very next iteration, Acura jumped back up to #3 (+22 overall, +20 speed, +19 navigation).  Not only has their site usability excelled with the HTML implementation, but Acura is likely deriving great benefits in terms of cross-platform usage.  It was the first OEM brand site that functioned as-is on the iPhone, and despite some increased page weights, it seems to load quickly for MWES users.

OEMs Scaling Back on Flash Usage

Acura’s transition from an all-Flash site to an almost-entirely HTML site seemed like a rather bold move 1½ years ago.  However, such transformations are becoming more common in the iPhone/iPad era.  In March of this year (even before Steve Jobs published his Flash manifesto), Virgin America dropped Flash in favor of HTML.  The company’s goal in choosing HTML was to provide a seamless experience for customers, including those who choose to check in for flights with their boarding pass on their phone.  Virgin’s CIO Ravi Simhambhatla commented to The Register website that, “Flash is really, really good, but as long as you can keep the hardware controlled…If the hardware you are trying to put your product on isn’t [controlled] then Flash is questionable.”

We have seen evidence of this phenomenon in the MWES study.  The performance of Flash sites can vary wildly among different computers, a flaw which often negatively impacts an OEM site’s usability.  Perhaps OEMs and their agencies have recognized this as well.  In the last year I’ve noticed that more OEM sites are moving away from pure Flash usage, particularly in their menus and primary navigation.  Instead, Flash is more often being reserved to enable true interactivity.

Out of the 33 OEM brand sites measured by MWES:

  • All flash: 4 (Jaguar, Kia, MINI, Scion)
  • Mostly Flash: 10
  • Mostly HTML: 18
  • Entirely HTML: 1 (Acura)

Many of the mostly-Flash sites utilize HTML in their configurators (e.g. Infiniti, which is a strong performer across the board).  The mostly-HTML sites tend to utilize Flash in their homepage and/or model page splash areas (e.g. Jeep, Lincoln).

As a category, the all-Flash sites performed worst for navigation, speed, and overall score.  Among the other categories, there’s no clear pattern of which combination of Flash and HTML works best.  In other words, it’s not necessarily the Flash – it’s how you use it.

For instance, Cadillac’s completely non-standard navigation of moving pieces requires Flash’s interactivity, but the result is a nearly un-usable interface.  And Cadillac suffers, finishing last in MWES.  Similarly, Scion uses Flash to enable its microsite masquerading as an OEM brand site and finishes at #32, beating out only Cadillac.  On the other hand, MINI’s all-Flash site features some quirky activity while maintaining a high level of usability, giving the site a ninth-place finish overall.

Comparing Lincoln vs. Mercury also shows how prioritizing navigation supersedes the choice of technology.  Each site used to have the exact same navigation scheme, but Lincoln recently gave its navigation a minor overhaul.  Lincoln has also shifted to become more HTML-based over the past year.

  • Lincoln is currently ranked 6th for speed, 8th for navigation
  • Mercury is currently ranked 10th for speed, 16th for navigation

It’s unlikely that Lincoln’s score improvement is due in any great part to the switch to HTML.  Rather, Lincoln’s efforts to simplify its navigation are probably responsible for the improvement in score.  For example, navigating Lincoln’s Features section is dead simple, and the images are large and appear above the fold.  Mercury, in contrast, requires users to look below the fold, awkwardly select different rectangular images, and then view a small image with text.  In general, Lincoln has gone the same route as Hyundai and dramatically cut down the number of links offered per-page.

What’s Next in the Flash vs. HTML Battle?

HTML5 is the long-in-coming alternative to Flash that has been anointed by Steve Jobs.  Some features of HTML5 are expected to be ready for use by the end of 2010, but based on what we’ve observed of OEM Web development behavior, OEMs are traditionally not early adopters when it comes to new Web technologies.  However, it is possible that the pressure for cross-platform usage may accelerate HTML5’s adoption.

Flash will likely continue to face some of the same pressures it always has – among them cost, variable performance on different systems, and the closed nature of its system.  Virgin America’s CIO cited all of these reasons for its decision to switch to HTML.  He commented to The Register that Virgin’s site wasn’t using enough of Flash’s capabilities to justify the continued use of the technology.  Rather, he felt that HTML’s free, open system was “good enough” for delivering the site’s animation and overall user experience.

Mercedes-Benz is the latest OEM to enter the debate, having recently abandoned Flash in favor of HTML.  The new site looks and feels almost exactly the same despite a completely re-engineered user interface.  The next wave of MWES (to be released in early 2011) should reveal whether the brand can achieve some of the same improvements we saw this wave with Acura.

Auto site redesigns gone awry – and why

Marketers and their Web development teams are very aware that the initial launch of a Web site will never go perfectly.  Flaws and inconsistencies, previously hidden, will suddenly become glaring problems.  As we’ve seen over many waves of the Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation Study (MWES), continuous improvement is the way that most sites improve their user experience; few are as lucky as Honda to debut a new site near the top of the MWES rankings.  In the 2010 MWES – Wave 2, which was released two weeks ago, we found that three of the four brands that redesigned this wave performed worse than the prior wave.  Let’s take a quick look at where these brands fell short, and then highlight how Hyundai’s redesign bucked the trend.

Land Rover – Awkward navigation; reduced emphasis on imagery

This wave, Land Rover dropped 36 points overall, 59 points in navigation and 43 points in appearance.  In the overall MWES ranking, Land Rover now ranks #28 out of 33, down from #12 last wave.  The primary problem with this redesign is that there is no dominant navigation scheme.  Shoppers can probably figure out where to start, but there is no clear path for methodically browsing the site’s content.  Examples of areas that may be creating headaches for shoppers:

  • Many links do not look like links, creating the illusion of fewer navigation options
  • Features and Specs page navigation is completely different from model page navigation, even though the same content links are offered
  • Shoppers have to make a decision among 30 links on the homepage – an overwhelming task
  • Gallery images are relatively small and the slideshow is excruciatingly slow

Volvo – Cluttered navigation and non-standard terminology are confusing shoppers

Volvo’s redesigned site fell by 19 points, with the vehicle configuration process falling by 32 points.  The site is now ranked #26 overall out of 33 sites, down from #21.  This is a good example of a site that may benefit noticeably from continuous tweaking.  Currently, however, navigation once again hampers the site experience.  Specific examples:

  • Way too many navigation areas (links, menus) create a sense of clutter
  • Shoppers may not immediately know where to find the information they are seeking.  For instance, the model level links contain non-standard terminology such as “5 Things to Know” and “The Details.”
  • Duplicative-sounding links (e.g., “Style Your XC90” vs. “Build Your XC90”) create confusion
  • The configurator actually contains too much information – the entire bar of information below the configurator navigation is redundant and adds clutter

Cadillac – User experience sacrificed in favor of branding

Cadillac fell almost 30 points overall this wave, with their biggest drops in Appearance (-68) and Navigation (-40), placing them last in the MWES overall ranking this wave.  The best way to describe the result of Cadillac’s redesign is to say that the new site is a microsite masquerading as an OEM brand site.  This is not a good thing.  Overall, the site’s poor usability makes it tough to get excited about the vehicles.  A few reasons why:

  • The collage-style navigation on the home and model pages is unique, but difficult to use and does not emphasize the aesthetic beauty of the vehicles
  • Menus and content move around as different items are selected – extremely confusing for shoppers
  • The layout makes it difficult to distinguish primary content from secondary links and information, particularly in 1280×1024 resolution
  • The site’s appearance was very dark this wave, making it difficult to read text, find links, and see the images

Non-intuitive navigation is the common factor contributing to the poor debuts of these three sites.  The new navigation schemes, regardless of the planning and testing behind them, need time to improve from a series of fine-tuning tweaks and revisions.  Compounding the issue is the fact that designers often seem compelled to start from scratch and/or try something completely new in an effort to stand out.  Unfortunately, this methodology can backfire, requiring years of tweaks to reach or exceed the level of usability of their predecessors.

Hyundai – Simplicity triumphs

Although reduced usability following redesigns is the norm, it’s not the rule.  Hyundai’s redesigned site showed substantial improvement across the board – particularly in navigation and speed – and finished at #7 overall, up from #28 last wave.  Hyundai’s success clearly stems from a focus on delivering a quick, simple, and informative site experience.  A few examples of this focus on usability:

  • Rather than cluttering the site up with more links and content, Hyundai actually simplified the site – going from 19 links in the top navigation down to eight, focusing shoppers’ attention and establishing a clear navigation flow
  • The site’s resolution changed to 1024×768 (from 800×600), giving designers room to add more content as well as the breathing room to avoid clutter and the need for small fonts
  • The drop-down menu is easier to read – especially the links in the model-level flyouts
  • The model-level navigation flow is straightforward

Usability, particularly through intuitive navigation, must be kept in mind as sites are redesigned.  That isn’t to say that all manufacturer websites have to look the same.  Websites can and should have a brand identity much like the vehicles they are showcasing.  The danger is that in striving to be different, it can be painful to stray too far from what shoppers expect from your sites – making it difficult for them to find the information they seek.

Social vehicle launches a worthy ice breaker with the consumer

A few weeks ago I wrote about the growing use of social media in launching new vehicles and challenged that its benefits–mainly in cost and targeting–when measured against traditional vehicle launches could tip this burgeoning launch methodology into the predominant mechanism for launching a new vehicle.  With the recent launch of the 2011 Ford Explorer on Facebook one thing is certain –  we’ve had an excellent opportunity to take a look at how social launches have evolved into a rich and engaging experience for fans.  I’ve taken note of some of the most engaging and interesting moves Ford has made with this launch:

  • Live chat with Chief Engineer, Jim Holland
  • Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame) and Alan Mulally had a candid interview in Time Square that paints Mr. Mulally as one of the most accessible CEOs of recent times.  In fact, one woman posted the following on her attendance of the NY City debut:

“I was one of the five women that were introduced to Mr. Mulally by Mike Rowe at the unveiling of the new Explorer in NYC on Monday. This was my first experience meeting a CEO, and I have to comment on how down to earth and personable Alan (may I call you Alan? :)) was. Even though only one of the five of us actually… owns a Ford vehicle, he graciously took time to share with us the details of the new Explorer, as well as giving his reasons as to why he declined to take the bailout money last year. And he made us feel that our opinions on both subjects were of importance to him.
Thank you, Alan, for spending time with us! It was an incredible day!”

  • The nature of the Facebook reveals prompted people to check back in, mention it to their friends, and post pictures/stories about their Explorer’s durability and longevity.

201,398 miles on odometer
199,999 miles on odometer

In my opinion, Ford provided a downright neighborly experience throughout this launch.  They provided a space to engage consumers on a very personal level, but they did so with class.  What makes this social launch different from the ones we’ve seen in the past is the sheer volume of exposure.  Ford Motor Co. reported the following numbers to Automotive News (August 2, 2010) in response to the Facebook unveiling of the redesigned Explorer on Monday, July 26:

  • “The 2011 Explorer site had more than 500,000 visits, compared with about 7,000 a day for the 2010 Explorer.
  • The number of Facebook Explorer page fans grew to 54,000 from 30,000 two days before the launch.
  • Users completed 48,600 price-and-build forms for the 2011 Explorer on the Ford Web Site, compared with about 700 on an average day for the 2010 Explorer.”

Ford has taken the traditional launch paradigm and turned it on its head.  Jim Farley Ford’s new approach in a speech at the 2010 Ad Age Digital Conference (excerpt runs 4:33).  Mr. Farley challenges the old vehicle launch marketing pattern where there is a huge inflection of targeting taking place at launch followed by a gradual petering out (as seen in Figure 1)

Instead, Mr. Farley favors emphasizing the importance of pre-launch programs (e.g. the Fiesta Movement) with new partners and content while maintaining engagement during post-launch.  It’s about engaging  the right people and focusing on the experience.

What is most interesting about this concept is that if you start serving the potential customer early and stick with them longer, consumer interest seems to steadily increase through and beyond post-launch activity.

I don’t think that Ford will be canceling traditional auto show launches anytime soon, but considering the palpable success of the 2011 Explorer Facebook Launch, I think we’ll see many more of these to come.

Infiniti plunges into user-generated content (well, kinda)

User ratings and reviews have been an online fixture for over a decade and a critical part of the operating models of many sites: Yelp and Epinions are built entirely on such content, while Amazon and eBay rely on ratings to support their primary business.  Third-party automotive sites have also buttressed their inventory, research data, and expert reviews with user-generated content.

Manufacturers, on the other hand, have largely resisted putting anything resembling user content on their sites (as described in a prior posting, Social Media on OEM Sites).  Some link to channels on other sites while others have incorporated content from sources such as YouTube and Flickr (still carefully controlled) into a separate section.  Baby steps, for sure.

Recently, Infiniti jumped in feet first by incorporating owner ratings into its model pages – prime screen real estate.  As shown below, the G37 Sedan receives 4.6 out of 5.0, and site visitors can even click to view the individual owner reviews.

The layout follows conventions and will make intuitive sense to anyone who has ever used online ratings.  Infiniti provides filters and sorting functionality, which is especially helpful given that the reviews encompass multiple model years and trim levels.

As with any kind of user-generated content, transparency is critical – it’s only valuable if visitors know there’s no manipulation.  Unfortunately, Infiniti.com gives no such assurances.  There’s no explanation of the source and no “submit review” functionality.   The end result feels like a set of hand-picked testimonials, which diminishes the implied authenticity.

However, I was surprised when I compared Infiniti’s ratings to those on Edmunds (which operates on a 10-point scale).  In only one case (the G37 Convertible) was the Infiniti.com score higher.

The content of the Infiniti.com reviews is generally, but not absolutely, positive.  For instance, some G37 Sedan reviews complain of road noise, the transmission, and/or interior build quality issues, which mirror the concerns of Edmunds.com G37 Sedan reviewers.

Even so, I can’t help but wonder about the source of all these reviews.  Among all third-party sites, Edmunds has the most extensive set of online reviews and doesn’t manage better than 24 reviews among these models.  But Infiniti.com has far more reviews for most of its models, including over 300 for the G37 Sedan!  The content is also uniformly well-written and clearly edited (e.g. proper capitalization, no misspellings, reasonably good grammar), which is not the norm for user reviews.

No, it’s not perfect.  But it’s still a brave first step.

Owner sites – what’s going on behind closed doors?

In most cases, not much.

Many OEMs offer a password-protected section exclusively for owners.  The registration process itself is straightforward – name, address, email, and VIN (not required by everyone).  Hyundai’s velvet rope section (shown below) is typical, maintenance reminders, warranty information, owner manuals, service schedules, and links to a preferred dealer.  It’s useful content, but not compelling.

Many OEMs also offer to help you find your “next [insert brand here].”  Maybe I’m missing the point, but doesn’t the brand site already fulfill that function?  Unless there’s a relevant owner-only incentive, it just feels like another intrusive sales pitch.

Some OEMs give you more.  Mazda connects to local enthusiast clubs, which is an important part of the ownership experience for many of its buyers.  On the other hand, I’m not sure why this has to be hidden in the owner site.

My favorite functionality comes from the Toyota and Lexus sites, which provide historical service records that are automatically uploaded from dealership records.  For a used-vehicle owner, it’s an amazing way to get access to the vehicle’s complete service history (at least, those completed through dealerships).  In the screenshot below, the records go back five years and show, among other things, that the front windshield was replaced in late 2008.  That’s more detail than any seller would ever give to a buyer!  On the flipside, I don’t know if the OEM’s payoff is worth the expense of offering the functionality.

I also like Toyota’s iGuides, video demonstrations of features for older vehicles.  While I’m sure most of us can figure out how to use the rear defroster, it’s a great resource for some owners.  And more complex technologies (e.g. tire pressure monitoring systems) will not be familiar to everyone.

I would prefer to see this kind of content be made more widely available, especially as vehicles become more and more complex.  For instance, Audi, BMW, and Volkswagen have dozens of new-vehicle instructional videos right on the main site.

I’m not currently financing any vehicles and wasn’t able to explore financing/payment content, which is truly must-have functionality for many buyers.  As for the rest, I think that for most of us it’s not worth the effort of signing up in the first place.

I hate hot spots

Five years ago, it seemed as though every other OEM was using hot spots.  Hot spots allow site designers to graft detailed information onto a high quality vehicle image, often right on the model landing page.  The example below is from Chevrolet, circa late 2007.  Each plus sign reveals its content when moused over – clicking links to a full feature description with text and an image.

I’ve never liked hot spots, mostly because they force the user to hunt for information.  In this Chevy example, that means mousing over twelve distinct hot spots!  It’s also impossible to quickly scan.  The interface may be appropriate for a microsite or experience section, but the primary vehicle research page should not require so much effort to use.  In the past, hot spots have contributed to problems with site navigation (for Chevy and others) as measured by our Manufacturer Website Evaluation Study (MWES).

Although hot spots have faded in popularity, they haven’t disappeared completely – for instance, Mercedes-Benz delivers its vehicle feature descriptions via hot spots.  I do like the way the site includes the category name for each hot spot rather than the uninformative plus signs.  But despite Mercedes-Benz’s improvement in its navigation score during the most recent wave of MWES, I believe it could do even better with a more intuitive interface for model-level information.

Mitsubishi recently redesigned its entire brand website and actually brought the hot spots back!  The overall navigation performed well in MWES (ranked 11 for navigation) but I would still prefer to access vehicle detail without all the clicking!

The top sites for navigation present feature information in a straightforward manner – text and links.  It’s not flashy, but it is effective.

I’ll probably have to suffer through hot spots for years to come, but at least I have other options.