Link to original Marketing Week article

Most marketers now expect customers to interact with their brands in more than one medium and know that each touchpoint will influence buying behaviour in a different way. But, as the journey towards a purchase becomes more complex and convoluted, so it becomes more of a struggle for brands to attribute their sales to their various marketing messages.

Consumers are travelling via more and more platforms in pursuit of the right product at the right price, which means marketers need to ensure they place signposts at different points. They also need to know which ones are most effective at showing shoppers the way.

For Auto Trader – Guardian Media Group’s marketplace for new and used cars, which runs across a website, a mobile site and a mobile app – this means understanding not only how buyers and sellers arrive on its platforms, but also how they drive offline car sales at the dealerships it partners with.

Auto Trader provides dealers with web traffic reports, detailing the clicks generated by its car listings, and also offers unique trackable phone numbers that enable it to report on the number of phone calls generated by its website for a particular dealership. According to Berian Reed, Auto Trader’s head of search marketing and online partnerships: “It is a stronger lead than a website click and closer to the end sale.”

He adds: “We also integrate with dealers’ customer relationship management systems to track which Auto Trader leads result in an actual sale. This is a huge step towards completing the end-to-end, marketing-to-sale journey. Coupled with our postcode data, we are able to demonstrate with a high level of confidence the physical number of forecourt sales generated from advertising with Auto Trader.”

With over 350,000 cars available on its website, the company also invests heavily in online search and display advertising, using bid-management platforms such as Marin Software to track which keywords and campaigns are performing most effectively.

“The automation that these tools offer has allowed us to invest much more effort into new marketing technologies and into learning more about on-site consumer behaviour,” says Reed.

Auto Trader is not alone in wanting to understand how to point prospective customers in the direction of a purchase. But this is not easy and requires brands to line up a lot of different variables. As head of digital Andy Mihalop puts it: “The panacea for any brand is to connect the right message, via the right media channel, on the right device, to the right customer, at the right time.”

Consumers are now comfortable shopping on multiple devices and platforms as and when it suits them. While they welcome this convenience, it is a headache for marketers and they are increasingly turning to data to understand sales attribution.

“It means getting lots of disparate data sources into one place,” says Mihalop. “Secondly, it is about being able to derive actionable insight pretty much in real time.”

MoneySupermarket has invested heavily in its own technology in an effort to achieve this, as well as hiring data scientists who work closely with the digital team. “The business has recognised that investment has to be in data and in people who are able to derive the insight,” Mihalop adds.

This is echoed by eBay UK head of advertising Phuong Nguyen, who says the advertising and retail industries are investing heavily in making sure their platforms are talking to each other.

“Without the ability to see how the customer’s tablet experience results in an in-store purchase or website purchase, for example, you will not have the insight that enables you to continue to optimise your user experience,” he says.

Being able to attribute sales to a particular device is something Nguyen says the industry needs to work on, but it is a big focus of 2013 for Auto Trader, where Reed says its new ‘single sign-on’ feature will help to put the brand one step closer to building a clear picture of consumer behaviour across platforms.

Retarget practice

‘Programmatic buying’, where brands buy online ad impressions that are targeted across websites where a specific audience is likely to see them at a given time, is also helping brands to understand the customer experience better. As MoneySupermarket’s Mihalop says, programmatic buying helps brands not only to build models predicting how prospective customers might behave online, but also to ‘retarget’ them at different stages of the customer journey.

Mihalop explains: “If someone gets a motor insurance quote from us and then leaves to continue their journey on the web, we can retarget them with personalised quotes [via ads on other websites]; or if they enter their vehicle details and then abandon the quote, we can show them an indicative quote based on the vehicle they drive.”

He adds that programmatic buying also offers an opportunity for cross-selling different products. Ads can be targeted using ‘propensity models’, which predict the people who have booked holidays through MoneySupermarket who are most likely also to buy travel insurance, for example.

“That really is the power of programmatic buying. It allows us to create a multitude of different customer segments [to target], because we can slice and dice both behavioural and customer data, create a segment and put that straight into [ad technology platform] MediaMath to test it.” Mihalop says the company has a “positive ROI” from all its retargeting activity.

Auto Trader, too, has seen a “massive uplift” in its click-through rate and a reduction in its cost per acquisition of a customer as a result of retargeting over the last six months, Reed claims. “We have been experimenting with dynamic search retargeting. So, for example, a private seller may arrive at our site via a search engine, start completing a listing for the BMW they want to sell, but then abandon the transaction,” he says.

“We will retarget that person with bespoke advertising messages when they are next searching, such as ‘70,000 people searched for BMW 3 series cars last month – list your car with us now’. This is quadrupling the effectiveness of our advertising in some cases.”

The company has also gathered some valuable insights from this. For example, it found that lots of people start listing a car on a Monday, but don’t complete until the following weekend when they’ve had time to take and upload photos.

“We’ve found that we are wasting money by serving ads to these people during the week – it’s better to wait to see if they complete the listing over the weekend,” says Reed. “That represents a huge cost saving when you consider that we attract 13 million unique users across all of our platforms each month.”

With shoppers oscillating between platforms on their shopping journey, brands are also grappling with marrying offline data with online data. Bennetts, one of the UK’s largest providers of motorbike insurance, runs 11 offline channels, including bike events nationwide, press advertising and rider sponsorship, and the company combines this data with its online findings.

Director of marketing and ecommerce Hannah Squirrell says: “Bennetts undertakes six-monthly brand-tracking research into consumers using both offline and online channels. It is very insightful. We back this up with data from Hitwise to further understand our competitor environment and other resources we have at hand. Our team structure ensures that all insights are collated and acted upon at a strategic level and that our approach, whether on- or offline, remains fully integrated.”

Social status

Social media is another valuable data source for brands, although many are careful not to use this information directly for sales. Bennetts’ social activity is purely about driving engagement and advocacy, Squirrell says. It has just launched a social network for bikers called Bike Social, which delivers content and enables bikers to share their experiences. Bennetts also uses Facebook to collect data, and recently ran a track day that was designed following bikers’ input on a Facebook survey. Its Facebook following rose by 4,000 people in one day.

Martin Allen, director of global customer marketing at, agrees that customer advocacy is the best form of advertising, and social sharing is therefore a key part of its marketing strategy. “To gain insight into what our customers think of us at, we measure the engagement on each piece of content we publish on our Facebook pages around the world. Social sharing is about more than Facebook however, so in addition, we encourage social sharing of our email content and are looking at ways to expand this.”

But as brands gain a more intimate knowledge of customers, they must be careful not to cross the line between relevance and obtrusiveness. Allen says carefully monitors how often it communicates with its customers, and prioritises service messaging above marketing messaging.

He adds that the main lesson the company has learned relates to personalisation. “The more tailored the message, the happier the customer and the higher the likelihood of conversion. Wherever possible, we use our knowledge of customer behaviour to personalise and tailor our messages to ensure we are sending relevant material to the right people at the right time.”

Delivering relevant advertising will continue to drive the industry forward, and will make it easier to see which marketing messages are leading to sales. Relevance is also likely to be necessary if consumers are to see targeted marketing as a valuable exchange for their data.

But this means knowing when to stop serving ads to people who just aren’t clicking. And that, like every aspect of charting the customer journey, requires an ability and a willingness to navigate by the data.