Auto Trader’s strategy is to help simplify the process of buying and selling vehicles for consumers, retailers and manufacturers alike. To achieve this, a key priority is to position it as the UK’s number one destination for searching and buying your next car, whether used or new. This is underpinned by offering an intuitive and engaging online experience which enables car buyers to easily search, review and compare any of the 450,000 new and used cars advertised on its marketplace every day. This can generate advertising revenue from car manufacturers, their media agencies and the UK dealer network.

But Auto Trader had a big challenge. Its heritage and legacy awareness meant it was all too often seen purely as a place to buy used cars, or as a printed magazine, despite becoming solely digital in 2013. This was affecting both consumer and advertiser perceptions, with some key manufacturers slow to engage. Alongside this, the consumer marketing posed a challenge. It felt dry and functional, leading to minimal growth.

The Auto Trader team identified that it could help meet these challenges head on. Research could potentially inform the development of the brand and platform to become a top of mind new car destination and enable the business to position itself as a thought leader to advertisers. But there is abounding research about the car buying process. It needed a unique angle that would resonate with a diverse industry (from technophile independent dealers struggling to adapt their businesses to the digital age, to research-savvy manufacturers and media agencies).

A radical, multi-faceted, innovative methodology

Join the Dots and Auto Trader teams worked incredibly closely on this project, collaborating to develop a multi-faceted innovative methodology, spending six months using mobile ethnography, online communities, in-depth interviews and surveys to understand the end-to-end car buying journey. All the other research in this area relied on quant and traditional post recall. There was a need here, however, to be radical, to explore the rich detail, and incorporate human stories, but in a way that could stand up to scrutiny. Capturing the ‘real’ lived experience felt essential to adding something new.

The first stage involved consumers downloading an app which enabled them to log their ‘in-the-moment’ experiences. Crucially, we recruited buyers at different stages of the purchase process, giving an accurate reflection of the pain-points and emotions experienced as they occurred, rather than trying to recall details months after the event. This mobile ethnography enabled us to identify ‘micro moments’ throughout the journey. Over 400 instances were logged, from video diaries to Facebook conversations to online browsing. These ‘moments’ provided the basis for a powerful story to bring the journey to life.

We followed up with filmed depth interviews, to further understand their feelings and experiences, before we set up an online community, where participants were able to share common challenges and shape potential solutions to the issues raised. Throughout the project, insights were fed into workshops between the agency and stakeholders as we iterated to shape progress. We engaged people across the organisation from sales; product; marketing through to strategy teams to continuously inform the direction of the project and maximise impact.

Finally, all of this fed into an online survey. We learnt that asking people post-purchase gave very different results to those who were living the experience. Behavioural economics was proven right here as, perhaps unsurprisingly, they forgot the pain they had been through, which led us to the radical decision to not use the post purchase quant data.

Layers of insight for high level impact

This research took an existing understanding of the consumer journey and revolutionised it. There was no single element of creative genius or ‘eureka’ moment, rather by layering up insight, thinking carefully about what we had found and collaborating along the way, we created a eureka moment for a whole industry.

Auto Trader branded the project "The Car Buyers Report" to maximise the reach for the research and enable it to form its own identity not just now, but as an insight study it could build on for years to come. It then hosted events to promote the findings. It distributed bite sized elements of the report in trade comms and used this to drive traffic to its trade marketing platforms. Printed copies of the report were shared with advertising partners and taken to conferences across Europe. The team also ran an internal comms campaign, tackling each individual business area separately.

The Impact has been significant

Changing customer perceptions: leading to a substantial growth in advertising revenue, a tenfold ROI on the outlay of the project in six months, the equivalent of £1m

Shaping product development: a new programmatic targeting product, significant reprioritisation of product roadmaps and several new initiatives

Influencing creative direction: moving away from functional product-led messaging to being far more emotionally engaging and effective

Energising media relations: securing blanket cross-channel coverage across key automotive media

Socialising the research: presentations at 10 industry conferences across the UK and Europe, and 29 bespoke customer conferences

Embedding insights across the research industry: new in-house insight events for media agency/manufacturer partners.