As traffic to automotive websites returns to pre-pandemic levels, Scott Gairns, Managing Director of Sophus3, highlights some of the emerging trends in online behaviour which should inform the evolution of an effective digital strategy.


“For the first time since 2019, car brand websites in Europe are seeing their audience numbers return to pre-pandemic levels, thanks to increased marketing investment, better websites and higher consumer demand. We know this through the Sophus3 eDataXchange partnership of more than 20 auto brands across the big 5 European markets. eDataXchange benchmarks digital performance against the industry average while providing unique insights into today’s car buyers.

But a closer look at the data reveals that those extra visitors are giving less and less of their time to car brands online, with all the headline KPIs for engagement—such as dwell time, page views per visit and bounce rate—heading in the wrong direction.”

“It is not a new trend, and we know that as smartphone use increases, so engagement goes down. But the continued growth in mobile is surprising. Over the past 12 months, smartphones accounted for 66% of all traffic to EU5 auto websites, up from just 32% in 2014, with Spain seeing the highest proportion at 77%. Germany is the lowest at 55% and the UK, Italy and France in the middle, at between 60 and 65%, which means there is a lot of room for growth. “

“Of course, we know that low engagement is not always a negative, because a good website helps visitors to quickly find what they need. However, our work with premium publishers in the UK—independent review brands such as Parkers, Auto Express and WhatCar?—reveals much higher engagement on these content-rich sites, which points to the consumer’s need for trustworthy, high-quality content.

An amazing 64% of sessions on car brand sites involve just one section of the site, and 85% include only two, which represents a poor ROI for the millions of euros invested each year by the auto industry.”

“The proportion of visitors who view a car model page, then configure and fill out a lead form is very small: less than 0.1% on average. This is despite a 10% increase in marketing investment over the past 12 months, according to Nielsen.

So how can you accelerate your progress to a better digital future? We would always recommend a deep dive into your Adobe or Google Analytics data to help determine what is good or bad. But the interesting thing about these top-line numbers is the huge range of performance between brands with best-in-class, such as Mercedes in Germany, or Tesla, outperforming the worst by a factor of five.

Auto brands need to be ever vigilant about their marketing mix too, because traffic quality changes over time and engagement rates may not be what you would expect. For example, you might expect organic social traffic to be highly engaged, yet the average bounce rate is surprisingly high at more than 70%. Traffic from paid search is also less likely to bounce than that from organic search. Who would have thought that?

We spent the past three years working with European car brands on their e-commerce rollouts, and all of them have become more customer-centric as a result. However, with many postponing the transition to the agency retail model, it is important that the momentum is not lost. All brands should continue to find a way to be more transparent with pricing and improve the customer journey.

Company culture is a key thing to get right, and we have helped some of Europe’s leading brands to use data to reduce friction between different internal silos and improve efficiency. It is clear from my analysis that the online car buying journey has a long way to go before brands can genuinely claim to be direct-to-customer.”

“We looked at a range of premium brands and compared the engagement performance to that of the car industry. Reassuringly, perhaps, there is not much difference in customer engagement between a car brand and, for example, a high-value travel or jewellery brand. But let’s see how those premium players compare with everyday brands such as Amazon and Uber.”

“As you can see, a low transaction value does not mean a second-rate customer experience. In fact, it means the opposite.

This really matters because your customers are constantly being trained by the smartphone apps to expect better. If they get a great experience from buying a toothbrush costing two euros online, imagine what they might expect from a €30,000 purchase?

We hope you find this analysis useful as you plan your auto digital strategy in the coming months. In our next video, we’ll take a deep dive into what we call the transactional user journey, where a customer gets rewards for their attention. For now though, it’s goodbye from all of us at Sophus3.”

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