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Taking the new BMW.com for a spin

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It was very interesting to see that BMW has re-launched as a magazine. Above, you can see what it used to look like.

And here’s how it looks today:

Digiday wrote about it and there were two paragraphs that really stuck out, bolding added.

Poggenpohl acknowledged the challenges ahead in tracking the performance of the articles, as some will rank better than others, and some could go viral. However, the articles will be judged on how well they push visitors to the BMW sites in their local markets, where they can access more product information. “From a central marketing perspective, the site sits at the upper part of the funnel,” Poggenpohl explained.

Rather than frame the online overhaul as yet another “brand as publisher” pivot, Poggenpohl sees it more as an SEO play. After all, most visitors to BMW.com come via search engines rather than directly, he added. The site, therefore, has to pull in people who aren’t necessarily interested in a specific car and instead appeal to their lifestyles, Poggenpohl added. “If people are talking about drones, then we should be able to find a connection with our products so we can create an article. The articles that you will see on the site in the future will be much more data-driven.”

Here are the things that I think about the above (important note: while our company builds sites and content platforms, we had nothing to do with this relaunch; I just find this stuff interesting):

  1. It’s a big honking deal that a major global consumer brand did this (which is why Digiday wrote about it). A website is a major consumer touch-point. Traditionally websites are driven by a product-driven strategy. Come! Look at our cars! Move the mouse to make the car spin around in space! Here’s a video about leather seats being stitched by diligent Germans! Find a dealer! But now the product-driven strategy is being replaced by a content-driven strategy in which people will explore their personal BMWness in the context of the overall state of BMWification of the world.
  2. Under the hood it’s still basically about buying a BMW. There is still car information on the site, and there are links out to sites like BMWUSA.com, which are more directly about buying cars than reading about cars or having car thoughts. Some of the items on the site are: (A) An article about gold-plated things; (B) A profile of Desiigner, whose video included a BMW; (C) Something about dogs and cars; (D) Something about the automation platform IFTTT; (E) Embedded tweets and Instagram posts from BMW.
  3. It’s not clear which kind of analytics is taking the back seat. Making content the central approach to a major branding touchpoint represents the unification of two very different schools of marketing. So it is going to be complex to measure this thing, and they’re apparently still working out all the details. This really matters because in this field it’s the metrics that show if the strategy works. You’ll have content-performance metrics like a publisher, and brand-performance metrics and funnel stats like a marketer, and adding all of that up to validate a new strategy is hard. And while they’re going to be writing data-driven content, that historically leads to some pretty dead prose and unsatisfying articles—not always, but it’s a real risk. Because you go, “wow, they loved that gold-plating piece, let’s have more of that.” You can mitigate this risk but it’s hard and requires a pretty intense commitment to…independent editorial. Anyway, I’m sure they’ve thought all of this through, everyone has had to think this stuff through over the last decade. It’s just wild to see it right in the bright lights at the main brand URL, instead off of to the side. Imagine if you went to McDonalds.com and instead of “$1 deals” there was an essay on the importance of Grimace to the body-positive movement and an article about cool porcelain figurines. That would be a big change. Many different worlds collide on this website. It is a significant smush.
  4. The humming engine of the whole site is AMP. AMP is a way to mark up web pages so that they are really fast on mobile; Google is behind it. (At Postlight we do a lot with AMP and find it very interesting.) If you do AMP right you can get better placement in Google search results (which ties into what BMW said to Digiday about it being an “SEO play”). And the pages on BMW.com are AMP web pages. They’re not converted into AMP. They’re…just AMP, whether on desktop or mobile. So technologically this site is making its priorities clear: It really, truly, deeply cares about supporting people who are searching for things on mobile devices. Publishers would have a harder time doing this because large portions of their revenue still relies on complex ad products that aren’t designed to work with AMP pages. But in this case the website is a complex ad product its own self—so that tension is not there.
  5. But how will they drive traffic? Well, I mean, lots of ways. There’s SEO. Also, for example, now that they have this content they can buy into various chumbox networks to broaden their reach. They’re a car brand so they can easily afford this sort of stuff, as opposed to a media brand which can barely afford snacks.
  6. Finally, social steers a lot of the content. Instagram embeds, Twitter embeds, and native editorial content are all friends here. They all live together happily in one long stream of web content.

In conclusion, the web is a land of contrasts. Part of me that sees this new BMW.com and goes, “yes, this is an obvious path for global brands on the web.” Because why would anyone visit a website unless it had good reference information, or offered buying advice, or manuals? Five times a year I’m trying to download the manual for some horrible piece of electronics in my life and I just use Google. I don’t think I’ve seen the home pages of HP, Brother, Fujitsu, Black & Decker, Cuisinart, or any other major consumer brand in years. Who engages with brands online in their full brandness? We see some stuff on social, or click through to Amazon via Wirecutter, or what have you. The Information Superhighway has crumbled into lots of footpaths.

If you’ll allow me to think like a global brand for a minute (which is how I relax): I think this approach by BMW is smart. However, I’d be panicked about maintaining BMW-level quality across all the content while making sure I covered my SEO bases. I’d want the ability to make lots of listicles, slideshows, and short profiles, and then I’d start to try to colonize history, so that “key driving moments” or classic cars in history started to have good SEO juice on my site. I’d be trying to own as much “car” as possible online, which is a heavy responsibility if you want people to read it and go, “man, that was smart, like me, a BMW purchaser.” Aligning editorial quality and brand quality is a true, infinite challenge. There are many risks and you’ve always got more work to do. Pray for us all.

Personally, the new site didn’t sell me a BMW. We own a Mazda 5 microvan from 2006 and the AC is broken for good, so we are looking for a new car, which is a dispiriting and terrible endeavor where no one can be trusted. BMWs are nice, if you like that sort of thing and enjoy just opening your wallet up and watching all the money leap out like tiny dolphins. However, I keep imagining the cleaning bill for getting the encrusted M&Ms out of the backseat. If anyone knows a good city car for a family of four with two six-year-olds I’d love to hear a personal recommendation.

Story published on Nov 30, 2017.