Executive interview: Antony Roberts, Audi


A recent paper from McKinsey suggests that car sales will become an omni-channel business. The idea of taking the time to look at shiny new vehicles on a forecourt, browse brochures, and touch and smell the cars in the showroom, before heading over to the salesperson’s desk to make a purchase, are perhaps a distant memory given the way the coronavirus has decimated the car industry.

Selling cars has had to shift to a more virtual, online experience, but the connection between manufacturers’ websites and dealerships is far from seamless.

Audi hopes to make things a little more seamless from a car-buying perspective, according to Antony Roberts, head of digital at Audi UK. The company has been on a two-year journey to revamp its UK website. During this time, day-to-day life has changed radically, with coronavirus leading to lockdowns around the world. 

“We are a 100-year-old business. If you can’t get to a dealership, you struggle,” he says, admitting there has been under-investment in digital technologies, but adding: “War acts as a catalyst for social change. We have seen lots of investment and change.”

The Audi UK website has become a crucial aspect of the buying process. “We released a model page and people can now access more information. The site is more feature-rich,” he says.

Roberts’ inspiration for updating the site was to make it feel more like a Samsung or Apple website, but for automobiles. Significantly, Roberts says he has aspirations to make the Audi UK site feel as premium a product as Audi cars.

Digital dealerships

There have been some attempts to make car buying a purely online experience, where prospective car buyers choose the model, colour and specification in a shopping experience that is analogous to the process people go through for their weekly online groceries. It is highly likely that online car buying will become the new norm and Audi is positioning itself to be ready for this switch in how people purchase a new car.

“We looked at Tesla and the reputation it has built. A number of manufacturers are looking to implement sales online. We have something lined up for later this year, but there is already a lot customers can do before they press the button to buy. We want to tap into the emotional aspect of buying a car,” says Roberts.

Audi has been on a comprehensive digital transformation, enabled by a cloud platform and supported by the latest data analytics from Adobe and agile software development practices. Software development cycles, which previously took between six and 12 months, have reduced to an average of three months.

Roberts says Audi’s goal was to create a website with the best customer experience, as the existing website was in need of a rethink, being very much desktop-focused and lacking analytics capabilities.

“We had a mobile website and desktop website, but we couldn’t do analytics,” he says. “We wanted to come up with a look and feel and experience [that was] closer to being in a car.”

Managing change

To achieve these objectives, Roberts says Audi began the search for a new digital partner. “I wanted to bring digital development in-house, which is potentially exciting. But the company is not great at adopting change,” he says. The company selected IBM iX, the digital agency business of the computer giant.

Rather than Audi simply handing over the work to IBM, the latter was embedded in the organisation, enabling the internal team at Audi to make its own decisions about the development of the new website. Change management involved establishing an agile methodology and the use of collaboration tools to enable remote teams to work closely together, focusing on important elements in the business.

“Given Brexit and Covid-19, we absolutely smashed the target and ended the year with 156,000 leads. The management team was ecstatic. It has been a great effort from the digital team”

Antony Roberts, Audi UK

Describing the site development, Roberts says: “We inherited the Adobe stack from our previous agency so we had a good foundation. But we were on an old iteration of Adobe Experience Manager. As we moved to the new website, we made the decision to upgrade to Adobe Experience Manager 6.2. This has given us a new world of capabilities, incredibly rich analytics and a content management system to power great experience.” 

The one piece of functionality Audi does not yet have is Adobe Target, which provides AB testing, enabling web designers to compare how different versions of a website are used. Audi uses a different tool to provide AB testing. Such testing helps Roberts and his team demonstrate to business decision-makers the effectiveness of site enhancements, compared with the old site.

“The business doesn’t necessarily embrace change with open arms [but] you can make a point when you have real-time data,” he adds.

Roberts says the team set up AB testing with 80% of site visitors going to the old website and 20% being directed to the new one. “We could measure our leads and the conversion of every unique visitor to some action.”

On a weekly basis, he says the web metrics showed the success of the new site, which has now been live for two years. “Last year was the first year we realised the fruits of our labour,” says Roberts.

The business wanted the new website to provide 150,000 sales leads by the end of 2020 – it exceeded this metric. Over the course of 2020, Audi saw a 59% increase in UK online sales enquiries despite an almost 30% industry decline in new UK car sales during the pandemic. 

“Given Brexit and Covid-19, we absolutely smashed the target and ended the year with 156,000 leads. The management team was ecstatic. It has been a great effort from the digital team,” he says.

In the coming months, Roberts is looking forward to the forthcoming arrival of e-commerce on the Audi UK site. “For the first time, this allows customers to search and compare a number of models and go through a complete process online. It will be transformative,” he says. In many car companies, this is still a manual process, but Audi has set its sights on becoming multi-channel and intends to use its dealership network to fulfil orders.