Data-driven ad targeting is part of the growing online advertising spending in the auto industry. Automotive advertisers spent about $4.39 billion on Internet advertising in 2012, up from about $3.49 billion in 2011, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau's annual report released last month. The report was compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Online marketing researcher eMarketer projects auto industry spending on online advertising will top $5.01 billion this year.
And data-driven ad targeting -- in which companies gather, manipulate and repackage information from consumers' Internet activities -- enables marketers to pinpoint their messages.
For instance, VW's Mayer says VW can also concentrate ads in ZIP codes where online shopping traffic is heaviest, and in areas near VW dealerships with plenty of inventory.
Mayer says the data can identify consumers whose online shopping behavior indicates interest in a vehicle but who are still deciding whether to buy.
"If they're exhibiting shopping behavior that indicates that they're not quite sure, we can hit them with an incremental offer," Mayer says. "When we draw them in, we have aggressive offers on our dealer sites designed to actually bring them into the showroom."
Search engine marketing, in which Google and other search tools are used to sell products, also can help win over consumers who are shopping other brands. Subaru, for instance, reduced inventories of the 2013 Forester crossover prior to the arrival of the redesigned 2014 model by increasing pay-per-click advertising on Google in the first quarter.
Subaru bought key words for competitive vehicles such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 so that links for the Forester appeared at the top of the critical first page of Google search results for competing nameplates. The links were designed to lure shoppers from the competition, asking the shoppers, for instance, to "Compare CR-V vs. Forester."
Phil O'Connor, senior manager of media in Nissan North America's marketing department, says data about consumers' online behavior help Nissan pick the right pitch for the right customer.
"If we feel like they're weeks away [from a vehicle purchase], we'll send them product messages. If they're very close, we'll send them incentive messages," O'Connor says of the ads.
"On top of that, we'll know that they have a propensity to lease based on this set of characteristics, so we'll dynamically build an ad that says here's an Altima and here's our $189-a-month lease, and we'll serve it to them, and this all happens in real time."
One way Nissan and other advertisers can reach customers is through advertising networks, which are companies that gather available advertising space from many Web sites and connect that space with advertisers.
When a shopper lands on one of a network's sites, computers analyze available data about the consumer's browsing history on Web sites within that network. Advertisers bid to get their ads seen by consumers with desired browsing characteristics.