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What Ford and Tesla's Digital Presence Can Teach Us

Ford and Tesla's web designs can give lessons as to why no brand can afford to ignore its digital presence.

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From clothing to big-ticket technology items to vehicles, more than 87% of buyer journeys now start online, according to Salesforce. Still, so many legacy brands continue to underinvest in their online presence, even as they spend tremendous amounts on above-the-line (ATL) advertising (think TV ads, magazine ads and billboards). As CEO of a global digital agency, I see this often — large corporations that are too slow to recognize and capitalize on new opportunities, even moves as basic as creating an effective website. Take Ford: Once a pioneer in the auto industry, the manufacturer has kept its focus on ATL, even as younger and more dynamic brands like Tesla started eating into its market share by appealing to digitally-accustomed consumers.  

I recently compared Ford and Tesla websites to analyze how well they understand online audiences — in the process of examining messaging, user flow and UI/UX design — and some of its key points are explored below. The most fundamental takeaway, however, is that no brand, big or small, can afford to ignore its digital presence

A quick look at today’s car buyer 

2020 research from the tech journalism/report aggregator DataReportal indicates that “the average American spends 7 hours and 11 minutes looking at a screen every day,” which is just over the global average. Pandemic-related home-based work and lockdowns will likely have added to this already amazing number.

Why should this matter to car brands? The Internet is where consumers now discover brands and form opinions about them, and is also where they shop — yes, even in the car industry. In fact, U.S. millennials, who are already “outshopping” baby boomers in the car market, are showing a clear preference for online platforms over dealerships, according to The New York Times. Gen Z, meanwhile, is fast emerging as important influencers of their peers’ purchasing interests and decisions. Though their car shopping days are mostly yet to come, these consumers’ wish lists are in the making today, and are being developed online. 

Still not convinced? Factor in the imminent metaverse, which is slowly blurring the boundaries of physical and online realities, and you’ll realize that we’ve barely scraped the surface of how consumer behaviors are poised to evolve.  

Related: Your Customers Are Using Multiple Devices. You Should Be, Too, With Omni-Channel Marketing.

If Ford’s 2021 website were a showroom, its sales team would be in trouble 

Your website is one of the first stops in a buyer’s journey. Much like a showroom, it can influence prospects’ perception of your brand and how likely they are to engage with it. A study by Stanford University bears this out — finding that 75% of users judge a brand’s credibility by its web design. A quick look at Ford’s 2021 website reveals that its virtual showroom leaves a lot to be desired. (Note that the brand has updated its design since my video review, but some structural issues remain; it’s akin to wallpapering cracked walls.) 

Take the homepage conversion funnel: We see seasonal offers featured in the hero section, followed by electric models and all vehicle categories, while the rest of the product categories are tiled into visually competing blocks as if to say, “don’t click on us: we’re not important.” 

In copy, we see form prioritized over function. “Join the Electric Revolution,” for example, is a call to action (CTA) that sounds cool but provides no value. Are they looking for engineers or taking you to see their electric models? As always, messaging is key. It’s nice to add some voice, but users shouldn’t have to decipher vague copy. Headers and CTAs should be as specific as possible (and keep in mind that less than 20% of users read paragraphs), so prioritize function over form.  

Now, there are some redeeming elements, too, like the dropdown menu with images of car models. That's a nice touch, but is quickly eclipsed by the fact that you have to click the menu item to reveal the dropdown rather than simply hovering over it. This is a 101-level mistake; you want to minimize the number of clicks to any destination. 

All in all, from the weird banner text overlays to the poorly constructed conversion funnel and vague messaging, this website feels like Ford hired interns to sell products worth tens of thousands of dollars. 

Related: Does Your Company Image Need a Refresh? What to Do When It's Time to Rebrand

Tesla’s web design by comparison

Before I get into Tesla’s website, a disclaimer: I do not own their car, nor do I own a Ford. This analysis has nothing to do with the quality of their products, but to illustrate the importance of an effective digital presence. 

This site is already a few years old, but it still feels fresh. High-end product photography with ample breathing space allows you to focus on simple, fluff-free messaging. Clear and actionable CTAs follow the user around and allow them to continue their journey effortlessly, which is great for driving up click-through and conversion rates. Product landing pages, meanwhile, have a sticky chat feature to connect users with representatives. This is not only an effective lead generation method, but is important for the user experience, because quickly resolving prospects’ doubts or questions helps them build confidence and commit to a purchase. 

Minimal and specific copy, visible and clean typography, product mockups, user support and strategically placed CTAs are just some of the details that testify to Tesla’s attention to detail and dedication to its online audiences. 

Related: Low-Code and No-Code Design Is the Future of Website Building

Your site is the forward-facing salesperson for your brand. It’s no wonder, then, that legacy companies like Ford are losing market share to bold newcomers. But legacy or not, brand longevity is conditional on the ability to understand and cater to evolving consumer expectations, and the more intertwined our physical and virtual realities get, the more critical this digital presence becomes.  

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