What the heck is an In-Market Buyer and where can I find them?

By Renold Liu

What if everything you think you know about automotive digital marketing was a lie? Someone, somewhere has been manipulating marketing data to support their case so they can give you exactly the information you wanted to hear. Now let’s say that another digital marketing pro comes along and tells you that everything you’ve been told is BS and that they have the real answer you’ve been looking for. How confused would you be? Would you freak out a little and wish for the simple days of newspaper advertisements?

Digital marketing is mired in technical terms and industry jargon. Bounce rates, VDP Efficiency, Time on Site, Page Views, In-Market Buyer, Intenders, CPC, CPM, CTR,  SEM, SEO and Retargeting (Remarketing), and the list goes on. You hire someone to translate these terms into English and at the end of the day, if you asked three different people they could have three different interpretations of your data. No wonder the flask in your desk drawer constantly needs a refill. I would love to definitively say that, “I have the answers and everyone else is wrong!” but you’ve heard that so many times, would you even believe me? Let me show you instead how to frame some of these terms and topics for yourself. That way you can be the judge of the BS you hear next.

The elusive In-Market Buyer: Defined

Let’s begin by defining what makes an “in-market buyer”, “in the market”. I will preface everything I say from here on, the term “In-Market” can and should be defined differently by different dealerships. The term “In-Market” refers to a person that has demonstrated, through a series of predetermined triggers, that they are nearing the point of making their vehicle choice and purchase. What these triggers are, needs to be defined by the individual dealership based on their customer’s historical behaviors leading up to the time of purchase. 

If it were in a digital dictionary somewhere it might look like this:

In-Market Buyer – (In /ˈmärkət/ ˈbī(ə)r/) – a buyer who has met a level of purchase intent, based on predefined criteria, that suggests they will transact within a finite period of time. These criteria may include: income level, Dealer Marketing Area (geographically target), digital purchase intent such as: volume of research, website interaction, searching for year, make, model and more specifically for package, color, price, and location, etc.

Let’s consider Chris Carbuyer (yes a made up name – but not as good as Karbaum, the best real name in the industry) has been researching the purchase of a new car. Chris decided that they need something with space for their active family, like an SUV, and that they prefer European manufacturers. Maybe they’ve looked at a few Vehicle Detail Page (VDPs) on third party listings sites or from various dealers around their area, researched brands around town, and checked into reviews of vehicles that fit their general “needs” terms on the OEM sites.

Is Chris “in-market” yet? By our definition and for most dealers, no. Chris is kicking tires (so-to-speak) and hasn’t really demonstrated interest in a specific brand, make, trim and pricing. Chris is currently defined as an intender, but we can’t see that he’s ready to pull the trigger on the purchase just yet. Many Data Management Platforms and networks would target Chris heavily at this stage – but is it too soon?

Chris then takes the leap and focuses their search on the Audi Q5 specifically, even looks at the local dealership and goes to the “Build & Price” page. Is Chris considered “in-market” now? That all depends on the local Audi dealer; is the Build & Price page the trigger that tells the dealer they have a qualified buyer on page? Maybe, but how many people go to this page because they’re dreaming and killing time on transit going to work? Perhaps we need more.

Chris really ramps things up and next time on site looks at specific VDPs, trim packages, financing options, payment schemes and books a test drive. I think at this stage it’s safe to say, Chris can be considered in-market. Now that they have checked the usual boxes to signify buyer intent, they must be ready to buy in the next 30 days. Right?

Not so fast.

Is it your intent to buy today, Chris?

The crux of what we do is to determine when a car shopper is more likely to buy based on triggers found both on and off of dealer websites. There are some people that will tell you they can pin-point when a buyer will transact within a very defined time frame. I hate to break it to you (and them), they can’t. Unless they are employing a Ouija board or time machine they are, like everyone in data-driven advertising, taking their best, educated guess based on a mathematical probability and predictive analysis.   

What are the numbers saying then? I’ll give you a hypothetical example:

  • Data based on 2500 unique buyers, tracked over a 6 month period; throughout the Path to Purchase.
  • 1000 took 1 month or less to make a purchase, 1200 required 30-90 days and the remaining 300 required the full 6 months.
  • Of the 2500 buyers, 68% or 1700, did not fill in the test drive form but did purchase from the dealership who’s VDP they visited multiple times which also coincided with the vehicles they researched most in the 7 to 21 days prior to purchase.
  • 23% or 575 buyers, completed near identical steps prior to purchase and they also filled a test drive form 7-14 days prior to purchase.
  • 9% or 225 buyers remaining, did not fill the test drive form or demonstrate normal research patterns before their purchase. These were the anomaly in the trends.

Based on these hypothetical numbers, what can we infer through probability? 91% of buyers in this group purchased the car they either saw online or saw online and took for a test drive, within 21 days of deciding on that car. So as a digital marketer or display advertiser you could confidently say that approximately 9 out of 10 in-market buyers will purchase a vehicle they research online.

Now, if you guaranteed these results to everyone, that’s when you run into issues. The magic of data is that it factors out things like feelings, or forgetfulness, or getting distracted by life. Data can give you an educated best guess based on the history of what other people did. Data cannot, however, precisely show intent with a guaranteed fixed date.

There is no formula that exists that can definitively state with 100% certainty, “When Chris Carbuyer lands on the Audi Q5 VDP and books a test drive, he will buy that vehicle within 7 – 14 days.” That would be mind reading and to be totally honest, no technology is THAT plugged in. Frankly, at that point in time Chris is likely still unsure. The only thing you know for certain is that Chris Carbuyer is interested enough in that vehicle to book a test drive at your dealership and you should continue to communicate with him. 

How traditional display falls short of proving intent.

I’ve said it before, traditional display ads suck for dealerships and here is just another example to support that. Traditional display falls in the realm of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 advertisements, which is to say, traditional display advertises the brand, the offers, and the events in very general terms to a demographically or psychographically selected market segment. For example, “Ford Family Pricing” or “Mitsubishi $0 down, 0% financing Event!” A prospective buyer will see this type of ad because they fit into a profile not necessarily because they have indicated they are shopping for a vehicle. For example, Chris Carbuyer fits the 25-45 year old, married, homeowner, with children market segment. Do any of these demographic indicators show an intent to buy a car soon or maybe a waffle maker or a shirt from Gap? Of course not.

This method of targeting buyers serves up the ads to as many people as possible. The hope is that a small percentage will take the next step to qualify their intent in some other way, like filling in a form or viewing a VDP. It isn’t until the prospective buyer takes the next steps in a more detailed search that they become qualified as “in-market.”

So, if our hypothetical shopper (Chris) sees a banner ad for an “Audi Dealer $0 Down Event”, then does an independent search for “2016 Audi SQ5 Technik black within 10 miles”, they have taken that next step to show they are interested in a specific car, with a specific trim level, and within a specified geographic location. By using “long-tail search terms”, Chris Carbuyer has matured from a market segment to an in-market buyer to the dealership. (Let’s point out though, nothing in their search used the term “I want to buy a ..” but the inference can be made due to the very specific search terms.) Analytically speaking, Chris Carbuyer is now an in-market, Audi buyer. Literally speaking, traditional display ads will no longer suit their search purposes so they have lost their effectiveness. However, that doesn’t stop the ad servers to continue to display these banners and costing the company money for each impression.


FACT: Demographics and Psychographics alone are an unreliable method of targeting in-market shoppers. You need behavioral data – the richer the better.

FACT: Banner ads and traditional OEM display advertising were not developed to help determine shopper intent or to serve as a tactical marketing tool. That’s why the acceptable response rate on these ads is 1 in 10,000 – yuck!

FACT: Lastly, no one can predict the day when a buyer will make their purchase solely based on analytics and online behavior. We can make inferences, but that is all. Fortunately, with the right tools at your disposal this will help a lot.

So what are we doing here? For starters, trying to help you start the conversation about what in-market looks like to you from website interactions and next, dispel some of the wild advertising claims you may hear from some traditional display marketing. Another goal for this particular piece is to spur the conversation around your boardroom about “what does our in-market buyer behave like?” So take the time to consider what “in-market” means for your store, then go find the tools to help you reach those buyers. Do let me know if you have any questions along the way.