Marketing To The Evolving Car Buying Customer Journey: A Comprehensive Guide

November 10, 2023

What's the first action you take when you don't have enough information on a topic? If you said "Google it", you're not alone. 

Today's car buying customer journey takes the same ride. 

And it's not just the customer. Emerging technologies build a fair playing ground for your competitors, too.

So, what can you do differently to hit a goal, aka, get a car buyer to purchase from you? 

You accompany them on their buyer journey.

The evolving car buyer is shopping online

Understanding the car buying customer journey

Before you chart out any strategies for marketing through the car buyer journey, let's understand the concept better.

A car buyer's journey illustrates their path to purchasing a car. It shows how they carefully plan, research, discover and evaluate multiple options to arrive at a decision.

Technology is a powerful influencer of the customer journey.  

Now vs future infographics in flat design

Previously, a potential customer viewed a car ad in the newspaper (or magazines) or watched it on television. Then, they visited the dealership to learn everything about that particular car. As you will see, the brand only played a role in the awareness phase. The dealer handled the car buyer's journey between consideration and purchase. 

Today, the story's very different. 

59% of buyers research their preferred cars online for several months before entering a dealership. 

In 2022, they spent nearly 15 hours researching and purchasing vehicles (marking an 18% increase from 2021). Nearly 60% of potential buyers under 45 prefer to purchase their vehicle online. 

Their purchase journey moves through online ads, marketplaces, review websites and most notably, social media. For 21% of car customers, social media directly informed their purchase.

Car shoppers collect detailed information from these sources, compare multiple options and then make a decision. For you, being visible online and nurturing buyers towards their car purchase by building trust is essential. 

Take Hyundai's example. Before 2017, the brand primarily relied on dealerships to do most of the heavy lifting. However, as the customer journey evolved, Hyundai revamped its marketing strategy to meet customers at each stage of the purchase journey. Eventually, it adapted to an agency model. 

In this model, carmakers take full ownership of the information, pricing and contracting responsibilities in the online environment. The agent (previously an individual dealer) interacts with interested car shoppers and existing customers to conduct test drives, process the sale, deliver the vehicle and handle servicing schedules in the physical environment. 

Hyundai focused on solving customer needs across their journey rather than concentrating on separate channels or legacy KPIs. 

What are the phases of the car buying customer journey?

Traditionally, the car buyer journey had three phases. But it serves car businesses well when they also focus on the post-purchase experience.

Car buying customer journey: Awareness, Consideration, Decision, Post-purchase

We’ll be diving into four phases:

  1. Awareness: The car buyer determines the 'need' to purchase a car.
  2. Consideration: They construct the problem, considering multiple car options and brands. 
  3. Decision: The car buyer evaluates these options and decides on the best solution (car) to solve their problem. 
  4. Post-purchase: They finish onboarding the solution (contracting, financing and delivery) and continue evaluating the solution (via servicing, offers, discounts, events and referrals).

Why must you be thoughtful about the car buying customer journey? 

This is why you must use the customer journey as a starting point for your marketing strategies:

  1. To create meaningful touch points across the car buyer journey, from search to post-purchase. 
  2. To meet car buyers where they're present–like social media and website search–and increase brand or product visibility at critical moments. 
  3. To avoid over-reliance on one channel, for instance, your car dealerships. 
  4. To develop and optimise omnichannel, integrated marketing strategies. 
  5. To match the car buyers' search intent on each channel with valuable and relevant content, maximising ROI. 
  6. To segment your audience and nurture each group with relevant resources using a tailored approach.
  7. To understand customer behaviour across the journey and continually improve marketing, sales and customer service.  
  8. To identify moments of truth (make-or-break moments) that heavily influence car buyer journeys. 
  9. To find out at which touch points customer expectations aren't met and identify sources of friction
  10. To remove unnecessary touch points and reduce time spent during the journey for faster sales.
  11. To optimise local marketing and sales strategies. 


Now that we've better understood the concept of the car buying journey, let's look at how you can build marketing strategies for each stage.

Stage 1 of the car buying process: Awareness

Car buyers take their first step in searching for the car. And it all starts with figuring out the answer to a simple question – 

Which car should I buy?

At this point, car shoppers want to find the vehicle that fits best with their needs. It's not about the models or brands just yet.

Here are some buyer actions to watch out for and how you can mould your strategy:


1. Need identification 

This is where the buyer identifies their needs or reasons behind purchasing a car.

As a marketer, you can start by identifying this 'cause' or 'trigger' for their needs. You can choose the proper channels to meet them if you understand their reasons. Plus, you create content on highly relevant topics for your audience.

Here are some buyer needs to pay attention to:

  • Old car: The buyer's old car periodically breaks down or doesn't work anymore.
  • Family: The buyer faces changes in the family. For instance, they have a new kid on the way, or they could have older parents who need help to commute. 
  • Lifestyle: The buyer's lifestyle demands a new car. They may want to fulfil a passion or hobby (such as off-roading), extra driving comfort, take road trips with loved ones or keep a status symbol (such as portraying a luxurious image in real estate to get clients).
  • Commercial use: The buyer could need the car for a new business or venture. 
  • Job change: They could be changing jobs and must commute to the workplace. 
  • Location: The buyer could be moving to a new city or town which needs a different car. For example, they may be moving to a colder region which needs vehicles built for that weather. 
  • Freedom: The buyer may want to stop relying on public transport and enjoy the freedom to go anywhere, anytime.
  • Values: The buyer wants to consciously move from ICE to EV based on climate change, economic, rising fuel costs or safety concerns.

2. Scouring recommendations 

The buyer will scour the web for expert recommendations on review websites. Through these recommendations, car buyers find out:

  • What cars fit their needs
  • Which car dealerships are the best for purchasing a specific vehicle in the local region
  • What budget ceiling to set
Internet search for online recommendations

Source:, Facebook

Match their actions by co-creating content with experts or leading reviewers. This way, car buyers will see your models or brand more, increasing visibility. 

Honda is a prime example. Recently, the brand launched its much-anticipated SUV car, Honda Elevate, in India. Instead of advertising with extensive YouTube videos, television spots and sponsorship of huge events, Honda did something different. 

Before the car arrived at dealerships, it organised a special trial run for multiple car experts and reviewers (including legacy publications and young reviewers). Each of them had the opportunity to drive the car for hours on end and share honest feedback. 

Reviewers published extensive YouTube videos, social media posts, stories, short video snippets, blogs and press articles. Through it all, Honda acquired attention and buyer trust for their product. 

3. Browsing social media 

After browsing recommendations, the buyer checks out posts from the brands they shortlisted for the latest updates.

During this search phase, they view multiple videos on YouTube (it's the second-most visited search engine). These videos include brand videos, product launches, reviews and customer testimonials. They also look at Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, among other platforms, to support their decision-making process. 

Online video on social media

Source: Jaguar UK, YouTube

Since the buyer visits multiple social media platforms and digital channels, it's vital to start personalising their journey right from the beginning.

Use extensive ad inventories to retarget customers who've viewed your content once. You can also attach these retargeting ads to native lead gen forms. As interested car buyers fill in their details, you take them to the next stage—consideration. 

Stage 2 of the car buying process: Consideration 

At this phase, the buyer starts narrowing down their options to answer questions like:

  • Which car model or brand is the best for me?
  • What is my budget?

They conduct in-depth research, looking at specific cars, dealerships, budgets and brand reputation. This is the time for you to respond to their queries and turn any objections to trust in your brand and product.

Here are some buyer actions to watch out for and how you can mould your strategy:

1. Visits to the brand website

The first few websites customers visit are the brand, OEM and dealership websites. They check the pricing and features for their shortlisted vehicles on these websites.

During this buyer action, you need to optimise your website (including optimisation for mobile) and make it easy to navigate. Alongside, build original SEO-led content, use keywords strategically and build backlinks to these content pieces.

You should aim to provide guidance and expertise to your audience, particularly for technical terms. To do so, keep your content concise and avoid information overload.

You may receive leads via your website lead generation forms. Seamlessly connect them from online to offline. The dealership team could take the discussion forward by arranging a consultation or trial run. 

BMW's online tools improve customers experience

Source: BMW, UK

Take BMW's example. The brand built a seamless buying experience from the first to the last touch point. It created a user-friendly website with options to configure the model per the buyer's needs, schedule a test drive at an offline dealership and finalise the purchase. 

2. Viewing specific reviews

Next, car shoppers check expert and user reviews for specific models they shortlisted. Generally, the review websites are popular and trustworthy, like The Car Expert, carwow and 

They may also check Google Reviews for their selected dealerships. Reviews about dealerships are typically to understand the purchase and post-purchase experience. This is also where a Google My Business profile helps.

Google My Business reviews encourage customer visits

Source: Google

If you're a carmaker or OEM, encourage dealers to set up their Google My Business profiles. They should ideally optimise these profiles by linking their respective websites, adding high-quality images, business hours, contact details and precise locations. 

3. Following social media and emails 

Now that buyers have their eye on specific cars, they may follow the social media accounts of their shortlisted options (cars and dealerships). They may also subscribe to marketing emails and newsletters for each brand, car or dealership.

At this stage, the buyer is looking to build a relationship. Don't let it go!

Strengthen the bond by posting about exciting offers, specific features of the car that appeal to the buyer and available financing options. 

Email marketing example for car buyers

Source: Mitsubishi

Continue retargeting ads for car shoppers interested in your models, brand or dealership. Attach lead generation forms to your posts so that they can schedule an appointment or trial run directly at the dealership.

To ensure seamless communication between the brand, OEM and dealership, sync incoming lead data with the CRM. You can then send targeted emails to each lead, addressing their pain points and motivating them to buy from you. 

Stage 3 of the car buying process: Decision 

After clarifying their need and seeking out relevant options, the buyer arrives at the decision stage. At this stage, they intend to answer the question –

Where to buy the car?

The decision stage wraps up the sale with negotiation, signing the purchase contract and completing associated paperwork.

Here are some buyer actions to watch out for and how you can mould your strategy:

1. Dealership visit

Dealerships play a crucial role here as they're often the touch point for the final purchase.

The buyer visits the selected dealership to understand the product further, interact with it and close the sale. As the offline face of the brand, dealership interactions strongly influence the buyer.

At this stage, avoid pushing the sale on the customer. They're already on the last leg of their purchase decision. Instead, show that you care for their interests and make them feel valued. This builds trust and encourages the buyer to finish the sale with your business. 

2. Online to offline transition 

If the buyer is coming into your dealership after requesting an appointment or test drive online, it's essential that you know their details. This is possible only when you've synced your CRM with online campaigns across the buyer journey.

Integrated data helps make a seamless transition from online to offline. It stores available information on the buyer's demographics, preferences and interests so you can personalise each offline interaction.

For example, if the buyer registered a test drive after seeing your ad for an SUV, the point of contact at your dealership shouldn't push them towards a sedan. 

3. Financing options 

Once car shoppers show significant interest in purchasing a car, they'll move on to questions about financing.

At this time, guide and support buyers. Simplify the available information and terms on financing options so they know precisely how to purchase their dream car.  

4. Wait time 

Buyers will be anxious about their final decision because purchasing a car is a significant investment. Don't keep them waiting!

Tech can improve and quicken their purchase experience. Forward customer quotes, offer chat support service and help match their need to specific products (such as insurance) using tech. 

Lexus does this splendidly. It provides an entirely paperless car-buying and financing experience at the dealership. As a result, customers keep coming back to the brand for their next purchase. 


Stage 4 of the car buying process: Post-purchase

Given how competitive the automotive industry is, loyal customers go a long way in keeping your bottom line stable.  

Your aim should be to convert the buyer journey (one-time) to an infinity loop (recurring purchase). That is, make the customer return to you for their next purchase, whether for an accessory or a new car. 

Here are some buyer actions to watch out for and how you can mould your strategy:

1. Handover

Delivering the car to the buyer could take weeks or even months. During this time, keep in touch with the customer and share regular updates over the phone or email.

Seamlessly transfer them from the sales to the post-purchase point of contact using integrated CRM data. Also, refine the customer response and query resolution times.

You could improve the experience by building an application or platform where buyers can log in and check the delivery status.

Offer any additional support services they may need, such as licence plate registration.

When handing the car over, capture the buyer's joyful moments. Also, happy car shoppers willingly share testimonials of their purchase and delivery experience. Both act as social proof that attracts new buyers, particularly those in the consideration stage.

Happy auto shoppers

Source: Subaru, Instagram

You could post them directly on your channels, or you may encourage the buyer to share these moments on their social media account and amplify them on yours. 

2. Loyalty and advocacy 

Appreciate customers who keep coming back for regular servicing and maintenance. Enrol them into loyalty programs over the course of several post-purchase engagements. Offer them special discounts or coupons to encourage continued loyalty.

Loyal customers refer your business to their family, friends and peers. So, you can incentivise any referrals coming through them.

Ensure they can easily schedule service appointments through lead generation forms on your website or customer platform.

Alternatively, you can send them service reminder emails. Also, share emails for updates on your brand, car, dealership, industry, loyalty program benefits and owner events.

Keep capturing additional data from these post-purchase engagements. Use the information to suggest additional products based on their needs proactively. Conduct customer satisfaction surveys to continue improving your processes, marketing strategies, lead management and the overall customer experience.  

Make the car buying journey an exceptional experience 

The car buying journey can be complicated and intimidating for the customer. You can make it seamless through integrated CRM data to track leads from first touch to post-purchase. 

Power an exceptional buyer experience with an end-to-end lead management system like Driftrock. Our platform drives lead generation and management for 22 automotive brands and 500+ dealerships, including notable brands like BMW, Honda and Land Rover. 

Stay connected with the customer across their car buying journey. Get in touch with us to learn how.