Before Internet browser cookies, and their eventual demise, became something he needed to know about, Bobby Sight generally didn’t consider using his dealership’s customer data as a source for advertising.
Sight, vice president of Rob Sight Ford in Kansas City, Mo., primarily used that data to get in touch with customers — for sales follow-up calls, service inquiries or online reviews. Now, he said, the information that dealerships can glean from their own systems about their customers will be critical to how auto retailers promote themselves.
That’s because the tags known as third-party cookies that follow users around the Internet as they browse websites will disappear. The shift has been underway for several years, under the backdrop of new privacy regulations taking effect in Europe and in states such as California. Web browsers Firefox and Safari have stopped storing cookies. Apple this year released an update to its operating system that allows users of its devices to opt out of ad tracking. Google plans to phase out cookies in its Chrome browser by 2023.
Auto marketers have long used third-party data collected from Internet cookies to serve up personalized messages or target ads specific to vehicles a consumer browsed on a dealership’s website once the shopper leaves the page, known as retargeting. Eliminating the sources of that data will make it more difficult to customize marketing in those ways going forward, several dealership marketing providers told Automotive News.
Retargeting campaigns will be vulnerable to the end of cookie tracking, marketers said.
Yet dealerships have access to a trove of data about their own customers — email, home addresses and phone numbers — that they can use to reach would-be buyers, said Josh Goodin, head of media strategy and marketing for Sincro, a dealership marketing provider. That first-party data, as it’s known, is shared willingly by customers and is often stored in dealership management and customer relationship management systems or on dealership websites.
Dealerships also can reach customers through social media platforms such as Facebook that still track their users’ activity, marketers said.
“Because it’s been so readily available, the industry hasn’t done a great job of figuring out an alternative to third-party cookies. It’s so very effective and durable,” Goodin said. “It’s breaking sort of the connectivity that we’ve had, and there’s really no way around it short of finding new paths forward.”
Some dealership leaders said they are working to understand those new paths.
“It’s definitely going to change our industry,” Sight said. “The good news … for dealers is we’re all going to be in the same boat.”
Car sales may be more affected by the phaseout of cookies than other products because of their high price tag, the time shoppers spend researching vehicles before buying and the long wait — often three to five years — between purchases, said Dean Evans, executive vice president of dealership technology company Cars.com and leader of its Fuel dealership video marketing product, which pulls in data about shoppers using the company’s listings marketplace.
Marketers of household goods need to be in front of lots of shoppers often because consumers buy such products more frequently than vehicles, Evans said. But that kind of strategy in automotive would lead to broad ad campaigns that reach a general audience, many of whom might not be ready to buy a vehicle.
That’s why having good insight into first-party customer data is so important to identify the shoppers actually interested in buying a vehicle, Evans said. But, he added, that data “is hugely undervalued, even yet today, with most marketers. And I think they’re going to start coming around to this as the cookieless future sets in.”
With the growing need for first-party data, dealerships can work to obtain it by offering something of value — say service discounts or a loyalty program — in return for consumers agreeing to share some personal information, said Lissette Gole, head of automotive retail at Google. That gives consideration to privacy concerns and provides transparency about how the information is used.
Dealerships also can work with social media companies, such as Facebook, which can continue to track users’ activity within their own platforms, said Pete Petersen, CEO of dealership marketing company Dealers United, which specializes in Facebook and Instagram advertising.
For instance, he said, dealerships can host vehicle detail pages within the social platforms. Facebook can identify when someone views part of a vehicle walkaround video or engages with an ad on the platform. The dealership and its marketing providers can use the resulting information to build an audience and retarget consumers while they’re using Facebook, Petersen said.
Facebook can’t share or sell that data to other platforms, he said, “but they can use it for their own benefit to build better advertising decisions on what you’re doing on their platform.”
Facebook declined an interview request for this story but shared a website post from July. In it, Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president of ads and business products, wrote that the company is working to build “privacy-enhancing technologies to help minimize the amount of personal information we process, while still allowing us to show relevant ads and measure ad effectiveness.”
Dealers should begin to evaluate their marketing providers to determine whether they are knowledgeable about building campaigns using first-party data and then find out what they’re doing to prepare for the change, Sincro’s Goodin said.
Kate Downing, marketing director for Williams Buick-GMC and Williams Subaru in Charlotte, N.C., said she is not “overly concerned” about the shift because her stores use more first-party data from customers than from third-party cookies in advertising now. That data includes information on visitors to the stores’ websites and customer data from the customer relationship management system, she said.
Downing said she would like to hear more information from automakers about how a cookieless future may affect their advertising programs.
“I don’t really see it being a huge impact,” she said. “But in the back of my mind, I have had this feeling for a long time that there’s something that I’m missing, that I’m not going to know how it’s going to affect us until it does.”