Consumers turn online for car purchases

AutoNiches ( more than ever are heading online to get purchase critical “information.”  Given the tough economic times, the value of every spare dollar means that people have to be more thoughtful about how they spend it.

As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reveals, auto purchases are no exception.  Not only is general information about a car important but finding/affiliating with like consumers is spawning a growth in “niche” online sites.  Even as U.S. auto sales have fallen by about 30% this year from a year earlier, more than 100 new auto-related Web sites have been launched, says research group Hitwise.

The distinction to begin to draw here is that “purchasing” related sites have experienced declines while momentum has moved to sites that provide news, commentary, insight and again affiliations with like-minded consumers/enthusiasts.  People want to find information that helps in their direct purchase of the car to help remove some of the stress and unknowns.  Finding sites filled with people like yourself helps to begin to lay in that connective “me too” layer.  Customers are more likely to accept the information if they can relate to the author and others involved with the site.  Almost no niche is too small and often it’s that refinement in who is populating the site that makes the difference. Not just in terms of the similarity of the kinds of auto enthusiast but also in terms of geography.  Clearly people in the Northeast have different experiences with cars than those in the Southwest.  Online auto publications are appealing to readers based on geography ( ), type of car ( ), ethnic identity ( ), gender and even sexual orientation.

Demand for automotive sites is increasing. The WSJ reminds us that a J.D. Power & Associates survey found that in 2008 more than 75% of car buyers conducted online research before shopping, up from 70% a year earlier. When we tell clients this factoid, they are incredulous at these numbers. Another subset to mention are the more gear-head centric sites.  Most sites have a core group smart, savvy guys who are willing to help out the uninitiated.  Back in the day I leveraged just such a site to find out everything from what modifications I could make to my car, to how to remedy problems and what the latest TSB (Technical Service Bulletins) are.  I was able to harness the experience of those already down the learning curve to find out what I might be in for, what questions to ask and how to deal with the dealership.

For autos and their agencies, knowing that people who are interested in cars are so specifically segmented and interested in unique “user generated” information is important.  Consumers are creating their own voice and they are being heard.