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Feb 24, 2005
How To

How FordDirect Helped Dealers Sell 210,000 Vehicles in 2004 (5 Lessons From the President and COO)

SUMMARY: Are you hoping your Web site will drive consumers into stores or showrooms to make a significant purchase? Or do you want to increase your conversion rates of visitors to qualified registered leads? Get five invaluable lessons from our exclusive interview with the president of FordDirect ... including his "eye-opening results" from registration form tests.
How can you get millions of consumers to fill out an online registration form revealing their interest in buying a specific car or truck?

Consider FordDirect's 2004 stats:

o 3.5 million monthly visitors
o 1.5 million new vehicle referrals per year, plus an additional number of used vehicle referrals
o 210,000 new and used vehicles sold as a result
o 9% of Ford-brand vehicle annual sales from site referrals

We interviewed Steve St. Andre, President and COO, to discover how they did it. Turns out, it's all about relentless testing.

Lesson #1. Set an aggressive site improvement schedule

Although the site's just four years old, it's already launched its eighth major upgrade (and countless minor ones) to improve conversions. "Everything is in fast cycle time. We roll code daily."

Lesson #2. Relentlessly test, tweak, and measure design six ways

FordDirect's Web design team has a knee-jerk assumption that whatever they design will probably be slightly ... wrong. St. Andre says, "We may roll code 18-20 times. We know we can optimize the experience. You're not going to get it right the first time."

So, FordDirect's Web design culture is about testing, tweaking, testing again, and again, and again. Nothing is set in stone. Nothing ever is assumed to be as good as it gets. The team relies on six types of usability tools:

Tool A. Benchmarking: "We're looking at what other sites are doing across industries. We get ideas we can take on lead generation." (Worth noting, St. Andre doesn't limit this to just automotive or mass consumer sites.)

Tool B. Heuristics: FordDirect's development team includes usability experts who view proposed plans and mock-ups prior to extensive code being written.

Tool C. Daily user groups: FordDirect runs ongoing usability studies in Austin, Texas, with different consumers coming into the lab each day. "It's in close proximity to our development software firm. We roll so much code, we have to have a continuous flow of user groups for ongoing development."

St. Andre notes, "Everything goes in front of user groups prior to launching actively. We don't launch unless we see how all concepts work. You learn so many things, you get it as close to right as possible."

Tool D. Quarterly national user groups: Every three to six months the team runs regional user groups in locations such as San Diego and Denver. They ask these consumers to review the entire site and process rather than just the most recent site tweaks. "We try to test different age groups and demographics."

Tool E. Clickstream analysis: "We do flow analysis of every portion of the site to see where they are dropping off, and where there are bottlenecks in the system."

Tool F. Conversion analysis: FordDirect's dealer customers give an enormous amount of feedback about the quality of the leads they receive. A decent percentage (perhaps as high as 5%) better wind up marching into the showroom and purchasing, or the investment in generating leads is wasted. No matter how usable a site is, and how much consumers love it, if they don't buy in the end, why bother?

Lesson #3. Offer navigation paths for different consumer goals

All of this testing has revealed a critical factor about the marketplace -- most site traffic breaks into two different types of shoppers, and it's not young versus old or trucks versus cars.

The two categories are education-seekers who want to delve into loads of details on their choices versus price-seekers who want a quick quote from a local dealer, the faster the better.

"You have to break everything into these two groups when you look at the data, and then develop specific paths to accommodate each of them," notes St Andre. Plus, the team rarely looks at overall site visitor data. Averages mean little when the two groups have such differing habits.

Lesson #4. It's not remotely important to be a destination site

Because the site's ultimate customers are the 3,900 dealerships who fund it, dealers set the site's goals -- which are to generate leads for sales, sales, and yet more sales. So there's no corporate ego play about being a branded destination site.

Instead, FordDirect has become a built-in part of 28 different destination sites from AutoTrader.com to MSN. "It's more expensive to purchase eyeballs and bring them to you than it is to take your content and put it where the consumers already are. If they're more comfortable shopping in MSN autos, let's leave them there."

The design team takes the integration far beyond the old-fashioned template landing page with both sites' logos that so many "powered by" partnerships used a few years back. Instead, the design tries as much as possible "to exist within that path or flow" of the destination site the visitor is already on. Which in turn means the FordDirect.com home page is far less important than you might think it to be, because so few "visitors" ever see it. Designing the entries and pathways on partner sites takes priority.

St. Andre has two business tips for other marketers considering partnerships:

Tip A. Get a 30-day "out clause" in every contract. Don't be locked in for a year or more. If something stops working you need to be able to focus your energies on the things that do.

Tip B. Track results in detail and share them openly with the other site. "We have very stringent quality standards and that allows us to go back to the site with closed loop reports and work collaboratively with them to improve the process. A lot of sites are very receptive to learning their traffic converted X leads and let's say we're getting 15 sales from that group, and our target is 16-18 sales."

FordDirect even tells partner sites which of the initial links or banners on their sites that drive the traffic to the registration form is working best. So if you have multiple directors sending traffic, you'll get a conversion report for each.

Lesson #5. Test the daylights out of your registration form

"We've extensively studied the registration forms, and learned a couple of things," says St. Andre.

"We added 800 numbers and ran it through VoIP tech to track consumers calling in. We thought it would be insubstantial. We saw an incremental 80% gain. It was additive." So 80% more people overall responded when they had a phone-in option. "It was eye-opening."

When the team tracked who called versus who submitted a form, they discovered the percent of callers remained fairly consistent across all age groups and demographics, except for one factor. Consumers researching a used car were more likely to call. "There's a level of urgency, they found the right model so they'd better lock it in right now."

Another key learning: "You simply cannot force consumers into the registration process prior to their comfort level.

"A lot of industries are driving traffic to forms, you have to fill this out. We've taken that out.

"Now we say let's match the consumer's excitement level and figure out what to do if they're not ready to fill out the form yet to contact a dealer. Maybe they want a brochure emailed to them, maybe they need multiple opportunities to come back and interact with the Web site until they are ready to transact. You have to be in the place they are in and not push them down the path."

If you're a registration form design junkie, keep watching FordDirect's forms over the next three-four months because St. Andre says the team is planning intensive testing.

Useful links related to this article

CPC Logic - the search marketing firm FordDirect uses for paid campaigns: http://www.cpclogic.com

FordDirect http://www.forddirect.com

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