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A Deep Dive into the Evolution of Automotive Digital Marketing

In conversation with Sarah Ciociola

For this episode of E-Coffee with Experts, Dawood Bukhari interviewed Sarah Ciociola, Director of Paid Media at PCG Digital, an Advertising Services Agency located in Manasquan, NJ. Sarah shares her journey from starting as a social media specialist to becoming the director of paid media, highlighting the strategic advancements and unique challenges within the automotive sector. She discusses the integration of e-commerce tactics, the importance of conversational commerce, and the role of innovative content in engaging modern consumers.

Stay tuned for invaluable insights!

Always innovate and test new platforms and strategies what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow in this fast-evolving digital landscape.

Sarah Ciociola
Director of Paid Media at PCG Digital

Hello everyone. Today we have with us Sarah Ciociola, Director of Paid Media at PCG Digital. Sarah, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here.

From an orientation leader to director, of paid media at PCG Digital, you have had an amazing journey. It would be great if you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got into digital for our viewers.

Yeah, absolutely. So again, as you introduced, my name’s Sarah Ciociola. I’m the paid media director at PCG Digital. PCG is a full-service digital marketing agency, primarily serving the third-tier automotive space. How I got introduced to digital just at large and PCG, I started at PCG Digital as a social media specialist. It’s going to be about six years ago in September, which is crazy to say.

I was on the social media team for about three years, and then kind of just worked my way up, identified that we kind of needed, you know, a paid media director role. I became the paid media director. So now I oversee our search engine marketing team and I oversee our social media team. What that allows me to do from a day-to-day and a strategy standpoint is connect the dots and provide our dealers with interconnected marketing experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have when they are outsourcing their SCM or they’re outsourcing their social media in a silo. So what I love most about PCG is the collaborative effort between all of the teams. So when a dealer signs on with us, they don’t just have a ticketing system, they get an account manager, they have a team of five, and we’re constantly collaborating, communicating with each other, and deploying strategies that all make sense together. We’re not just doing one thing and then the other and then the next, and that drives us to great results.

So I have been in digital for six years primarily all within the automotive space. So auto and social media advertising, since that’s where I got my star is very near and dear to me.

Any particular like, you know the reason or I mean like, you know, how did you get into like automotive industry in particular?

Yeah, so it kind of just fell into my lap. What I wanted to do, so I went to college for marketing because I knew I didn’t want to do anything that involved any kind of math. I knew that I was a people person and I knew that I was creative. So then when I graduated college, I was just looking to get my foot in the door somewhere. I knew that an agency would be the best experience for me because it would allow me to learn all of the facets of digital marketing and not just social media marketing. And that’s definitely what PCG did for me.

so my favorite part about it and why I love it so much, especially within the auto space is there’s so much education involved, in auto space, even though it is a big industry, it’s a very actually tight-knit close industry. So you get to know people from other companies. We get to create different efforts that are industry efforts. And, you know, we spearhead at PCG, a lot of those industry efforts, to move automotive along because as I’m sure a lot of you know, automotive is notorious for being five or 10 years behind e-commerce and other kinds of industries like that. So it’s, I like being able to kind of push things forward and bring e -e-commerce strategies and e -e-e-commerce tactics into an automotive space and allow it to kind of disperse across the industry.

and do you also get some discounts for your clients?

I wish. No, but I do get to see some pretty cool stuff sometimes, so it is cool.

Yeah, I saw your podcast. I think it was a drive podcast where you did a podcast in a Ferrari or Lamborghini, I guess. That was pretty cool.

yeah, yep. Yeah, and that was pretty cool. We go to Las Vegas every year. The past few years, it’s been in Las Vegas for, I think that was at the NADA, so National Auto Dealer Association event. And yeah, he’ll like to take you all through the strip and just ask you questions. And it’s really, that was cool because I got to see the strip because I’m going to Vegas all of the time for work, but you’re always working. So to be able to go out during the day, see the strip drive around in a cool car, was a cool experience.

Yeah, you also speak at a lot of conferences and meetups. How do you prepare for a talk? Is there any process you have? I mean, how do you go about it?

Yeah, so I always try to one, identify my audience. So figure out who’s going to be in the room and what’s most important to them. And then I always like to introduce a topic that’s pretty much brand new. So, anything that we’re testing at the agency, anything that’s new in terms of platforms that we’re advertising on, or different strategies that we’re trying to deploy. I try if we’re tried and true with something at the agency, if we’ve been doing something forever, I try not to present on that.

I try to present topics and information that people will find brand new, exciting, interesting, and something that I feel like probably most people in the audience aren’t already doing. That’s really how I’ve identified to capture my audience most by kind of giving them brand-new information. When you’re teaching them things a million people are already teaching them, you lose them quickly. And then the other thing is just reminding myself that when you’re presenting to people, whether it’s on a main stage or It’s in a workshop setting. You’re a person talking to another person. So really making sure that you’re speaking in a way that’s engaging, and informative, but isn’t, it’s not making your audience feel like, this is going way over my head or I’m not educated enough to understand this. I think the best speakers and the best marketers, whether you’re talking to a client or you’re talking to a room full of people at a speaking engagement, can present things and present data that’s in a digestible way for everybody to understand.

What are some emerging trends or platforms you’re keeping a close eye on, particularly within the automotive sector from a marketing standpoint?

Yeah. So I think within the automotive industry, the trend that I am keeping my eye on is conversational commerce. So automotive, as everybody knows, is notorious for your shopping on a website. The digital retailing process is far from being, you know, the best consumer journey. And then when you want any kind of information, you have to fill out a form.

And then you get three emails from the dealer. You get 10 phone calls, you get texts, you just get blown up. You give them your information and they don’t stop contacting you. And it’s just not a fine-tuned sales process, nine out of 10 times. What I have identified as being, you know, somebody younger in the industry and also just a consumer at large is that people don’t want to fill out forms. And a lot of people don’t even want to pick up the phone and call anymore. So how are brands, whether it’s automotive or anybody else conversing and interacting with these people who are interested in buying a car or shopping with you at all in their consumer journey? And that’s where conversational commerce comes in. So kind of almost eliminating those lead forms or at least eliminating the dependence on those lead forms and maybe pivoting your strategy to messenger campaigns on Meta or just importing different events from Google Analytics into Google Ads that will give you more of an engagement story.

whether then, okay, you had 10 people fill out a form and then nothing else. What did they do before they got to the form? Is the form the issue? Different things like that. I am pushing at the agency because I think it’s important to communicate with your consumers the way they want to be communicated with. And they certainly, especially younger millennials and Generation Z, do not want to fill out forms. At this point, they know better than to give anybody their information like that because they don’t want to get blown up on their email their texts, and their calls.

They want quick information, they want it fast. So can they just message you something quick? Can they text you something quick? And are you just going to respond to them or are you going to all of a sudden now push and push and push for them to buy you a car? That’s really what I’m pushing from a digital side.

Right. And also, you know, like, you know, like there’s so many, you know, like platforms, you know, like right now, like how do you plan your strategy in the initial phase? Like, you know, which platforms to go after and, you know, like what kind of content to, you know, like go after, like how does the strategy look like?

Yeah, so at least for PCG and from our agency perspective, when a client signs on for full digital, they will start with search engine optimization, search engine marketing within the Google sphere, and meta marketing. So anything under the Facebook or Instagram umbrella. From there, we try to identify their media mix because their media mix is filled with third-party vendors. It’s filled with their digital, some traditional OTT.

We have add-ons like Microsoft advertising and TikTok advertising that we can add to a dealer’s media mix. But we tend to take the first 30, 60, and 90 days to identify trends in the accounts, learn about their market, learn what’s important to them, learn about their inventory fluctuations, and then create tactics within the original strategy we introduced to them to say, hey, this is how we’re going to make this unique to you based on your data. A lot of people get obsessed with what are the benchmarks on Google.

What are the benchmarks on Meta, TikTok, Microsoft, on other platforms? And it’s like, you need to utilize your numbers and your data as your benchmarks, specifically within automotive, because the dealer down the street may have different inventories. They may be, you know, they may have a completely different media mix that’s impacting your media mix and making sure you are creating a media mix where you’re not completely married to just one service. You’re not, okay, well, my sales are completely dependent on my Google advertising or my traffic is completely dependent on my meta advertising. How are you making the puzzle work together and not just having a bunch of puzzle pieces here and there and not understanding how it works in tandem?

Right. When it comes to content, like is there any particular type of content that right now is working best, like, you know, from an automotive industry standpoint?

Yeah, I think educational content and I think this doesn’t just go for automotive, but it probably goes for a lot of other industries too. The way that we’re consuming media right now as younger generations, even older generations, is just the way that social media is right now, we consume media very fast and we consume only the things that we want to consume. You’re never going to see something in your for you page that you’re not already looking at or that you don’t want to see. So for instance, if I’m buying a car, I don’t care all that much at the beginning of my consumer journey about incentives monthly deals, and MSRP. I’m doing a lot of research. I want to learn about the dealership. I want to learn about different models. I want to learn what works for me. I want to learn how this model this make and this dealership are going to solve my specific problems for why I want to buy a car. So when we’re speaking about content and creating content, what was five years ago where you could just kind of create one piece of content and slice and dice it and disperse it, we now have to create.

five, 10, 20 times more content because your content needs to speak to every individual group of people for it to be effective.

For dealerships with limited budgets, what are your top recommendations for maximizing the impact of the paid campaigns?

Yeah, sure. So when a dealer comes on with us and they’re like, listen, we only have a thousand, $2,000 to spend. We always like to recommend dynamic advertising first and foremost. So whether that’s vehicle listing ads on Google, whether that’s automotive inventory advertising on Microsoft or Meta, we tend to go there first. We like to see a full-funnel media mix where we’re running branding traffic messenger campaigns, and awareness and engagement.

But when a dealer comes on with a really limited budget and they just want to get going and they want to just get started and build some data within an account, we’ll typically recommend dynamic advertising across the board.

All right, what’s your take on TikTok?

I am all about TikTok. So I have been promoting TikTok for a few years now. and I know there’s a lot of craziness going on in the stratosphere about TikTok. but specifically what TikTok represents. So maybe in a year from now, it’s not going to be TikTok, but. TikTok represents the fact that short-form video content is what’s going to make or break a brand’s digital presence moving forward in this digital age. That’s one. And two, it gives us a great insight as to how.

As I keep mentioning, younger millennials, Generation Z, and Generation Alpha interact with brands. What’s important to them? What’s going to make them engage? What’s going to make them respond to an ad? They are, their lives are consumed with their phones and it’s consumed with social media. So how are you kind of breaking the mold of what even five or 10 years ago you were considering as an effective advertising strategy to what you’re doing now? We have to consider generational advertising moving forward.

How are you speaking to this generation with this specific problem, this generation with this specific problem, and this generation who, in the automotive, may not even have their license yet, but are you going to start branding to them now, so they’re top of mind when they do turn 17 or they’re buying their very first car, 22 or whatever it is. It’s so much more intricate. They’re so much more involved. And the content piece, which is TikToks, that short-form video content is going to be crucial moving forward.

Right. And also, I think the TikTok algorithm also has improved so much. Apart from just the videos about the people you follow, even your interest videos, the kind of videos that come, they’re so accurate. So I think even the algorithm in itself has evolved a lot.

Yeah, I think so too. And I think that almost makes it more competitive, right? Because you’re not going to be able to throw spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks. If somebody’s not already looking at car dealerships or models or whatever it is or specific trends, then you’re not showing up. It doesn’t matter. You could put in all the targeting in the world in the backend. If it’s not relevant to the user, it’s not going to work.

Right. And you know, like with TikTok, I think, you know, like it’s very, you know, like critical because, you know, it’s the short attention spans, short-form videos. Like, you know, what are the ingredients of making, you know, like that perfect hook or that perfect like, you know, TikTok video?

Yeah, it’s so short and effective exactly like what you just said. So make sure you’re identifying trends, listening to sounds, listening to all of those things. You have to be on TikTok to make your TikTok strategy effective. So that’s one thing I always tell our dealers and they’re like, well, I don’t even have a TikTok. I’m like, get started, go on it, and talk to me again in two weeks because I want to see what you’re seeing. I want to see what trends are popping up for you.

I wanna see what you like to watch. I wanna see what you like and don’t like about TikTok because then we can create specific strategies for specific people just like you. And then we can also create specific strategies for people just like me and what I see on my TikTok and my FYP and stuff like that. But the hook has to be in the beginning. It has to be something fun. No sales, no gimmicks, nothing like that. So we always encourage our dealers. 80 % of the content needs to be fun, light and engaging, 20%.

honestly, even less needs to be about sales and specific incentives. On TikTok, it should be 100% fun, light and engaging. And if you want to in a very creative and intricate way, throw in something about a sales incentive or throw in something about an MSRP, you can do that. But that can’t be the primary focus of the video.

All right. How can dealerships use social listening tools to gain valuable insights about customer conversations online?

Yeah, so I think something that I’m pushing right now on the social media end of our strategies is like I mentioned, messenger campaigns. I think that’s effective for dealers because it’s something that somebody can just message on their phone, and get the answer. And as long as they have a sales team or a chat provider integrated with that messenger app, then it’s a very effective way to build relationships with people online and give them the information they need without being salesy, without being gimmicky.

So that would be my number one thing I would think. And just being able to identify like what are people asking? What are they looking for? When they’re no, when you’re not shoving things down their throats, I was like, buy a car, do this, you know, there’s a sale, here’s this, I’ve been contacted you, I’ve been doing this. What are they asking you when they feel comfortable to ask the question? That’s then where you should be like, okay, we need to build content around this. We got 10 people last week asking about X, let’s build a great content strategy around it, and let’s push it on a paid scope, let’s push it organically. Those are going to be the best kinds of strategies for automotive. And that’s what the best marketing managers or if you’re an agency, that is what’s that’s what’s going to succeed.

Right. Sarah, tell us your favorite client story.

My favorite client story. my gosh. Well, recently I was pretty proud of a pivot that we made in one of our clients who ended up being the number one Nissan dealer in New Jersey, largely due to all of our digital efforts at PCG. So we had a client, they were running dynamic advertising and they were generating no leads. Every month we would have one, two, or three leads. And when I say a lead, I mean a form fill on their website.

And they were like, you know, we may cancel social, we may go elsewhere. We’re not generating the results that we’re looking for. And I was perplexed. I was trying to figure it out. You know, I was really looking into and really auditing it and diving in deep. And I was like, you know what? Let me try to prove my point that I’ve been trying to push for a while and let’s pause these dynamic ads and let’s go to a messenger campaign. The same ad copy, the same dynamic feed.

the same tagging, like the whole thing’s the same, but we’re going to optimize for messages and we’re not going to optimize for lead forms. They received 50-plus messages in the first two weeks of running the campaign whereas when we were optimizing for lead forms, we were only generating three or four, you know, form fills in the entire month. So I said to the dealer, I said, this is what people want. They want to be able to just chat with you. They don’t want to give you their information and get bogged down by your sales team.

And now we have great effective conversational commerce strategies for that dealer. And that dealer last month, as I mentioned, was the number one Nissan dealer in New Jersey. So that was a super proud moment for our entire team because our entire team identified the issue and pivoted. And it, again, just emphasizes the conversational commerce point as well.

Right. You know, like with, you know, with like all the AI, you know, like coming into play, like, you know, like any best use of AI, you know, like for you as an agency.

Yeah, I mean, I think creative ad copy is going to be the best in terms of creative AI. I don’t think AI is replacing marketers. I don’t think AI knows what levers to pull in the backend of Google and Meta and TikTok and Microsoft and all of that good stuff. What I love to use AI for is if I’m scheduling posts organically or if I’m just sitting there, I’m like, I can’t think of anything creative to write for this ad copy because we’re running a lot of the same kinds of campaigns for a lot of the same kinds of makes and models for a lot of our clients. It’s like how many different ways can you say A, B, or C? So I like using AI for that because they come up with some creative things. I’m like, that is catchy. I wouldn’t have thought of that. So that’s how I like to use it. And then I think for content purposes too, you know, you can ask AI like create a content calendar for the entire month of May based on A, B, and C.

So there’s no excuse anymore. It’s very easy to produce and then just execute.

Right. Any, any favorite tool for the AI copy, like, you know, for the art copies.

I probably just use chat GPT, honestly, like I love it. And then in Sprout social too. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Sprout Social, but they will, it’s like an organic scheduling tool. They will give you, you type it up, you put you, your media on it, your video, your picture, whatever. And if you click the AI button, they will give you three different AI options for what you wrote. So like here’s try to, how to make it a little bit more creative. They do emojis, they do this, they do that.

You just slice and dice whatever AI you want, if you want to choose that one. And I’ve been using that for a lot of the schedule posts that we do specifically for some event marketing that we do. We throw a lot of big events at the agency and that has been the most engaging organic content from just taking that. I wrote whatever I wanted to write. I had AI make it a little bit more creative. I slice and dice that AI and it’s been engaging.

Right, right. What keeps you motivated and passionate about, you know, the world of automotive digital marketing?

I think what keeps me passionate and motivated is just the fact that you know, it’s an industry effort a lot of the time. So when we find something that works, we present it to the entire automotive industry. Like we don’t have a lot of secrets or a secret sauce. Our secret sauce is our people and our people interacting with dealers in a way that’s effective and digestible as I mentioned earlier. So what keeps me passionate is just creating to continue to advance the industry.

whether that’s in the measurement of digital advertising, the creative piece of it, any issues that the industry is seeing, low inventory, or different things like that. And I think too, from a larger marketing perspective, just being able to identify different trends with different generations of people, I’m passionate about that. And I think that’s the way that digital marketing is going to start to go where you can’t just create one strategy. You can have one media mix but within that media mix,

There should be dozens and dozens of different strategies for different goals and talking to different people in specific ways. That has never been done in the automotive space and the way that it’s done so effortlessly in the e-commerce space. And I’m looking forward to seeing that done, you know, in the next months and years to come.

Right, well, Sarah, thank you for your time, but before I let you go, I like playing a quick rapid-fire round of three to five questions.

Okay, sure.

Perfect. Texting or talking?


Early mornings or late nights.

Early morning now that I’m pushing 30.

Favorite ice cream flavor.

peanut butter.

Last Google search if you remember.

My last Google search was bridal shower pens. I’m throwing my best friend a bridal shower, so I needed pens with diamonds on top.

If a movie was made on you, what genre would it be?


Well, Sarah, thank you so much for your time. It was fun having you and I wish you all the best.

Thanks for having me too, it was so fun being here and hopefully, I’ll be here again soon.



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