COMMENTARY: How I met your motor

CARY, N.C.  - 

Simply by the way they sound, the words “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” can sound impersonal, even robotic.

Ironically though, the technology itself can drive more a personalized experience in retail, especially in car shopping.

Much of the discussion about the implications of AI and machine learning in automotive retail involves comparisons to other retail products (food, shoes or music, for example), marketplaces (i.e. Amazon) or both.

In applying AI to the car-buying experience, Cars.com is going a different route with its latest project, one that mirrors an experience outside of retail.

More specifically, online dating.

Talk about getting personal.

The company has launched an online “Matchmaking Experience” that it says is designed to make searching for a car feel more like finding that special someone on a dating app.

You provide the 411 on some lifestyle preferences, Cars.com tosses out some recommended matches and you can “like” or “don’t like” those suggestions.  Sounds simple enough.

Granted, I’m a married 35-year-old who is admittedly clueless about hip young folks and their tech-forward dating habits.

But I do know plenty about the car-shopping experience, both as a consumer and a journalist.

Enough to know it can bring same emotional rollercoaster (joy, frustration, confusion, wonder) that dating might.

And that’s sort of the hitch to the Cars.com Matchmaking Experience.

“We’re treating people like human beings with distinct emotional nuances, not just site users, as we build a more relevant, personalized car-shopping experience,” said Cars.com chief product officer Tony Zolla.

“Early-stage car shoppers don’t know what they’re looking for,” Zolla said.

“In fact, an overwhelming majority are undecided on make and model, yet nearly all online car search experiences force people to select make or model as the first step in their journey. Our new site intelligence is built from our comprehensive amount of vehicle data combined with user preferences and sentiment analysis to deliver a Matchmaking Experience that gives people a better way to shop for cars,” he said.

And it has married this new experience with an ad campaign titled “We Met on Cars.com.”

A 30-second commercial from the campaign includes various scenarios where folks are “swept off their feet” by certain amenities in a specific vehicle and have met their match.

(“It’s where a cowgirl can meet 480 horses,” the opening line goes, as said cowgirl has eyes for the pickup truck in front of her).

“Our new omni-channel campaign tells the story of how Cars.com creates chemistry that endures long after shoppers find the car of their dreams," Cars.com chief marketing officer Brooke Skinner Ricketts said in a news release.

“We're rekindling the emotional connection that sometimes gets lost between the dream and the drive, and we're injecting fun back into car shopping,” she said.

After all, it’s about the experience. And one promise of AI and machine learning is to create a more personalized one.

Beyond that, it’s about building relationships, albeit automotive ones.

“Cars.com is not brokering transactions — we’re creating relationships between people and dealers and people and cars,” she said.

And that, kids, is how car shopping is changing.

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