This past July, the digital marketing world experienced a shockwave that was felt throughout the automotive industry and in many other industries as well. Universal Analytics (GA3) was sunsetted across the horizon, and a new version, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), was introduced. The creation and overall validity of this new version of Google Analytics stemmed from increasingly more intense privacy and regulatory restrictions across the internet at large. Thus, there was a need for change and a new system.
With more regulation and new systems in place, what does this mean for retail automotive dealerships across the country? What has changed and why? Let’s discuss this shift, the many hurdles we’ve faced together over the course of 2023, and what to consider as we move forward into 2024.
Reinventing the Wheel – Third-Party Cookies
The biggest reason for GA4’s creation is that the tool will soon need to collect data from sources other than third-party cookies, which it relied on previously. Starting January 4th, 2024, the removal of third-party cookies will roll out on Google Chrome. Third-party cookies have historically been used by websites and browsers for cross-site identification of their users. These cookies have powered programmatic advertising and user data analytics for over a decade.
Third-party cookies were the engine that propelled data collection in Universal Analytics (GA3), so with their removal, Google needed to figure out a new solution. So, instead of using third-party cookies, GA4 relies heavily on first-party cookies along with other data collection methods (like unique client identification sequences and timestamps) to identify and predict users and their behavior. First-party cookies are only enabled on the exact domain a user is visiting, and they do not pass along user data to other sources or follow you throughout the web. These first-party cookies are the better use-case for increased privacy and best follow regulations against the sharing of user data.
All in all, this move away from third-party cookies has ultimately forced the hands of technology providers all over the spectrum to rethink the way user data is shared and stored. In the same vein that it forced the hands of technology providers to change, it has also forced marketers to rethink the way we interpret and report on consumer behavior and data overall, which has been an ever-changing endeavor throughout the lion’s share of 2023.
The Automotive Standard Council
2023 was a bizarre journey for all who use Google Analytics to inform decision-making and navigate marketing success. And just as GA4 rolled out, the automotive industry began moving toward a new cohesive method for standardizing event data, further complicating the switch. The valiant effort of the auto industry led to a new Automotive Standards Council (ASC) framework that enables dealers to play from the same sheet of music regardless of vendor. And while this may have led to some initial confusion during the transition, this framework is an overall massive win for the entire automotive industry.
Before the standardization of event data, events and conversions were all tracked in different ways with different event nomenclature for every vendor. This made it nearly impossible to create efficiencies for Dealer Principals and Marketing Directors. For single rooftops, this isn’t as nuanced, but scaled out to some of the largest dealer groups in the country, it becomes far less than ideal from an operative standpoint to transparently gauge success in a meaningful way.
If you haven’t checked with every one of your technology vendors in the space yet on if they are sending ASC Events, you should! From Digital Retailing/Chat to the website itself and beyond, getting ASC events added for all vendors should be an absolute must for 2024 if you haven’t ironed that out already.
Let’s face it… For 2023, GA4 was the bull in the china shop when it came to data integrity, which was exacerbated by the simultaneous change to the ASC framework. Rearranging and relaunching the source of truth that we all were used to created data black holes that rippled their way throughout the automotive galaxy. The good news is the past is behind us, and next year, most dealers should have some more meaningful data collection to observe now that the industry is getting more aligned with this change. But before we move forward, let’s take a look at some of the hurdles we’ve faced in 2023.
The ASC Standard was not executed in real-time for all vendors, which completely distorted month-over-month comparisons when looking at events and conversions. Some vendors had things ready to rock on day one with little to no proactive communication on the dealer side, while other vendors only took said action if spoken to and were held to the fire by request. The cause of this problem was a non-linear implementation of the thing that we all use to gauge digital marketing success in automotive, which is far less than ideal. Most proactive dealers are finally in a good spot in this regard, while some other not-so-proactive dealers still do not have ASC events set up from all their vendors that are able to send them.
YOY Comparisons for Meaningful Events
Year-over-year comparisons when looking at meaningful consumer actions/events have been distorted throughout the duration of 2023 due to non-linear implementation. This is one of those sad but true moments because the sheer impossibility of coordination with such a massive change was not scalable for the entire industry to coordinate. The good news here is that 2024 will create some more transparency for dealers when it comes to trusting your source of truth for core events and transactional intent year-over-year on your website.
Unlike Universal Analytics (GA3), GA4 enables users to toggle between three different reporting identities, which will display data differently depending on which one is selected. The first and default setting is “Blended,” which takes into account User ID, Google Signals, Device ID, and predictive modeling data. The second setting is “Observed,” which includes everything in the blended data set with the exception of modeling data. Lastly, there is “Device-Based,” which includes device ID only.
It’s important to note that changing which one you have toggled on will change the way Google Analytics identifies and shows user data in reporting. Another item of importance is that Google Signals is going away as of February 12th, 2024. This will hinder GA4’s ability to acquire demographic data like age and gender if a user is logged into their Google Account while visiting your website.
Music to One’s Ears: Better Data Continuity In 2024
All the challenges we faced during 2023 with the launch of GA4 were necessary things to happen to pave a better road forward for automotive marketing. I predict that 2024 is going to be an exciting year for dealers honing in on their ROI since they’ll now have the opportunity to see all these new standardized events YOY. Ultimately, this will all provide a more accurate sense of actual growth versus perceived growth.
If you have questions about your GA4 implementation and are wary that something seems off, or if you just have general questions about anything in this article, feel free to contact me directly, and let’s have a conversation.