A Continuous Focus on the Ideal Visitor Experience
In this paper we show how account planning kept a continuous focus on visitors’ needs, helping Volkswagen.co.uk reach its highest share of visitors for automotive manufacturers’ websites. By 2007, the Volkswagen.co.uk website was six years old and needed a redesign. Besides, customer behaviour online had changed. Visitors had become more demanding of their online experiences as more of them got online; the web had become more sophisticated and so had visitors’ skills. In the automotive category, more people than ever were researching what car to buy online and manufacturers’ websites, to a degree, had taken on the role of dealerships. We identified insights for each of the key stages most people would pass when buying and owning a car. Our website had to help people progress to a further stage by addressing unmet needs. Through a continuous focus on the visitor experience and a planning effort to remain involved throughout the eighteen months of the project, we ensured that the website delivered at the end was aligned with our initial vision. Every part of the site is built around the ideal experience that online car buyers would expect from Volkswagen and makes every stage of buying a car more intuitive.
In this paper we will show how account planning kept a continuous focus on visitors’ needs over eighteen months of website development, helping Volkswagen.co.uk reach its highest share of visitors for automotive manufacturers’ websites (from 9.2% in 2007 to 10.4% in 2008).
Making the case for a new website
By 2007, the Volkswagen.co.uk website was six years old and ancient by web standards. It was time for a redesign. While the current design had been efficient at delivering information to visitors, it didn’t provide a brand experience and didn’t help move people towards purchase as much as it could.
The first thing we had to do was to make a case for why Volkswagen should go to the expense of creating a new website from scratch rather than keeping the one they had.
The business case was largely already made: we had just finished writing an IPA award paper in 2006 showing how a more engaging experience for Volkswagen’s Golf GTI resulted in more profitable configurations for Volkswagen; we forecasted a similar improvement in profitability for other models if we were to build a new, more engaging website.
More compelling, however, was the evidence that buyer behaviour had changed in the six years since the last design. The arrival of the web had transformed the car buying environment. More people than ever were researching what car to buy online.
In fact, by 2007, the Internet was the first source used to research cars. 57% of all buyers tried online research before using other media. 80% of consumers used the Internet as an information source during the vehicle buying process. Prospects spent more time online with the brand than in any other medium; of an average nineteen hours researching their next car purchase, eleven of them were spent online.
As a result, visitors knew what they wanted, how they wanted it, and what they were prepared to pay for it. Manufacturers’ websites, to a degree, had taken on the role of dealerships. Rather than visiting a selection of dealerships, people visited a selection of websites; according to a study published by Network Q, the average customer visited less than three showrooms before buying in 2007 (compared to six in 2001).
How the competition reacted
Despite an opportunity to address these issues, most manufacturers’ websites simply continued to use their websites as a confusing hard sell environment. A typical competitor’s website bombarded visitors with hundreds of choices, thousands of pages and cluttered imagery, with small cars fighting large cars and luxury cars for page space, with navigable items and links inserted for fear of what might happen if customers weren’t told to do one thing or another.
Understanding people and modelling their behaviour
Similar to the process that Volkswagen takes when building its cars, building the new Volkswagen.co.uk site started with a thorough understanding of people. By modelling the behaviour of different customers, we were able to build a website that makes every stage of buying a Volkswagen more intuitive.
Even though people had changed their research methods, the stages of the buying process itself remained similar. We visited dealerships and interviewed people. We also drew on New Car Buyer Survey results and 39 years of agency experience of speaking with car buyers.
This allowed us to identify thirteen key stages of purchase and ownership. These were not a linear journey that all people took, but were rather important stages most people would pass when buying and owning a car.
The brand experience had to help people progress to a further stage, particularly through bridging the gap between consideration and purchase. Having customer insights for each of the key stages helped us to come up with features that would address unmet user needs.
We also looked at the shopping experience on other websites outside of the automotive category. Visitors had become more demanding of their online experiences as more of them got online; the web had become more sophisticated and so had visitors’ skills. Though mainly driven by other industries, innovation was on the rise.
Our strategy, therefore, considered three major behavioural frameworks: the shift in the car buying process towards online research; the 13 stages of car purchase and ownership; and increasingly sophisticated user expectations.
Planning the ideal experience
Based on our research and insights, we created a video briefing to inspire our team by outlining how we could take an approach different to that of our competitors. This was our challenge to the team:
Our idea was to put the customer, not the brand, at the centre.
This was translated into an overall conceptual model for how we wanted people to experience the site.
Keeping the focus on the visitor
The true value of account planning was shown in the eighteen months between the development of the vision and delivery of the website. Planners sat amongst user experience architects, creative teams and developers throughout.
Making the video briefing and creating the conceptual model had been vital steps towards designing the right experience on the website. We knew, however, that the project would take at least a year to complete, so we translated the vision and conceptual model into a set of user experience principles, which allowed us to remain involved throughout the project. In this way we would ensure that the website delivered at the end was aligned with our initial vision.
These were the five user experience principles we set for the broader team:
- The site will be a destination for anyone interested in buying a car and become the most visited automotive website in the UK with its new features and functions as the main attractions.
- The car models are the heroes of the Volkswagen brand, each with its own features, benefits and personalities. Each will be given a separate pedestal to stand on, even though the site is not about creating model-based campaigns.
- The site will become the hub of Volkswagen; bringing together the brand, their retailers and customers, and strengthening the relationship between the three parties.
- The site will reflect the brand essence by demonstrating Volkswagen’s better thinking in all business areas and through all page details.
- The site will recognise the distinct needs of different audience groups. We will not try to be all things to all people.
Every corner of the website experience was subject to planning scrutiny; each stage of the visitor’s journey was issued a flexible brief. The cascading nature of the different experiences created dependencies between each brief that required day-to-day attention.
An added benefit to having the living wall of briefs came during measurement phase. When it was time to work with the website measurement technology provider, we knew exactly how we wanted each part of the site to be measured because we knew how visitors would ideally behave.
The creative result
After eighteen months, the result is a site that looks and behaves in a markedly different way. Right from the homepage you can see that the experience is designed around visitors’ needs. We don’t bombard our visitors with hundreds of choices; instead we highlight the five most important ones.
Another example of our visitor focus is the model search and selection function. Where our competitors ask you to select models for inspection simply by model name and shape, the Volkswagen site allows people to find a car suitable for their needs using a series of easy-to-understand filters based on key criteria such as shape, size, price, engine type, performance, or fuel efficiency. As you change your criteria the relevant models appear or disappear, leaving you with only the Volkswagens that are right for you.
Once you’ve selected a model, the website presents you with a bit of the ownership dream. During our research we found that people need to imagine what it might be like to own a GTI, or in this case, a Touareg 4x4. Within the thirteen stage buying process, this is our opportunity to build additional consideration and desire for a model.
The true heart of the website experience, however, is the configurator. The configurator smoothes out the complexity of buying a Volkswagen and presents the customer with a personalised, enjoyable experience. A fully animated interview process allows you to watch your dream Volkswagen being built, from getting the chosen paint colour sprayed on to finding the right finance package.
Finally, we knew that if the website was really replacing showroom visits, the following stage would be buying a Volkswagen. It was therefore important for us to allow visitors to find a retailer, choose one based on location or other customers’ recommendations and book a test drive, all directly on the website.
In the end, the creative result was a predictable outcome of our process. Every part of the site (of which we’ve only shown a portion) is built around the ideal experience that online car buyers would expect from Volkswagen. On launch Volkswagen.co.uk looked and behaved like no other manufacturer’s website. The constant focus on visitor experience has paid off.
The results, so far (2007 vs. 2008)
Despite car sales being down by 11% year over year in the UK, we have seen noticeable improvements since launch. With visitors up by four percentage points, Volkswagen.co.uk became for the first time the most visited automotive manufacturer’s website in the UK in November 2008, beating industry sales leaders Ford and Vauxhall.
The people who used the site are now more likely to buy: the ratio of online test drive requests to retail sales went up by 8%.
According to Psyma, a cross manufacturer website survey, between October 2007 and October 2008 overall satisfaction was up by six percentage points (from 70% to 76%). The number of people agreeing with the statement “The website makes me feel positive towards the VW brand” increased by five percentage points (from 68% to 73%) and the number of people agreeing with the statement “The site has exactly the information and function that I require” was up by seven percentage points (from 54% to 61%).
The initial results are encouraging despite the current economic climate. But what excites us most is that we have established a visitor-focused planning process that will continue building on this early success.