A group of Hyundai powertrain engineers recently visited WardsAuto to talk about engines. They mentioned things such as horsepower, torque and direct injection. Presentation slides included “OCV Integrated CVVT and Atkinson Cycle.” They sure knew their stuff.

Their talking points may make gearheads swoon, but dealers would be well-advised to neither let those guys near a showroom customer, nor solicit them to write a store review.

Why? Because their tech talk wouldn’t connect with the typical vehicle shopper.

That’s evident from new CDK research identifying the top words and phrases in dealer-website reviews that are more likely to convert a car shopper into a buyer.   

The research says terminology such as “passing” (as in a driver passing another on a stretch of road) does the trick more than a mention of “torque.”

That’s because “passing” helps ordinary consumers who don’t have automotive engineering degrees visualize and understand what a car can do.

In contrast “torque” is a low-converting term. Mention it to auto engineers, and they readily envision measurable engine power delivered through the transmission and to the axles to spin the wheels. Horsepower numerically describes how quickly that energy is delivered.

But torque and horsepower are vague words to the average buyer who isn’t looking at things so technically. Instead, they want to know. “Will this car offer enough power so I can pass that slowpoke on this 2-lane highway?”

“Passing” on dealership online reviews ranks tops as a high-converting term. Words such as “climate,” “blindspot,” “comfort” and “quiet” also work well there.

In addition to “torque,” low-converting terms include “test drive,” “tire,” “features” and “amazing.”

It’s not that there’s anything bad about those words. Car enthusiasts love to talk torque. It’s just that such language is not especially descriptive in helping an average car shopper form an image in their mind's eye, according to the study.

“‘Amazing’ doesn’t really say much in that context,” Jason Kessler, CDK’s lead data scientist, tells me. “Neither does ‘features.’ They’re too vague. For the reader of a review, presumably the worst thing someone could write is, ‘I got this amazing car with a lot of features.’”

It means more if reviewers cite specific things such as legroom, a quiet ride, “a truly wonderful side blindspot zone alert” and their professed love of all-wheel drive in northern Minnesota’s tough winter climate.

Readers can visualize that stuff. “This is about using empathetic language that connects with people,” Kessler says.

Dealers don’t (or shouldn’t) write reviews on themselves, but they can pick which ones to highlight on their websites. Kessler suggests reviews containing the aforementioned hot-button descriptors get top billing, even if, ironically, a reviewer using those words may skimp on the stars.

“In sales conversions, some reviews with only two-and-a-half or three stars, but which had strong closing terms, did much better than a 5-star review without those strong terms,” he says. “That indicates the terms were involved in engaging customers.”

Yet, dealers typically assume 5-star reviews should go front and center on their homepage, Kessler says. “However, we found that reviews using specific and relatable words, even if their overall star-ranking is lower, are more effective at converting shoppers.”

Technology allows marketers and others to track online shoppers’ behavior, which sites they are going to and what they’re clicking during their car-buying journey.

The trackers don’t know names, phone numbers and favorite ice-cream flavor (although given enough time, they could learn that), but they do know where a person with such-and-such an IP address has gone – and market to them accordingly.

So someone expressing an online interest in, say, a Ford F-150, may start seeing banner ads for that pickup truck. If conquest marketing is involved, they may start seeing the likes of Chevrolet Silverado ads.   

The CDK study used such tracking technology to determine the most influential words and imagery in dealership reviews.

Kessler gives an example. On a third-party automotive marketplace website, a Chevrolet Cruze buyer writing a review said: “I was very skeptical giving up my truck and buying an ‘economy car.’ I’m 6’ and 215 lbs., but my new career has me driving a personal vehicle to make sales calls. I am overly impressed with my Cruze...”

Of 20 Internet users who read that, 15 subsequently visited a Chevy dealer website. “That’s a 75% engagement rate,” Kessler says. “The median rate is 22%.”

The CDK study is the latest look at what words do and don’t resonate with online car shoppers. An earlier company research project tracked words that work best in dealership e-mails.  

Kessler is a PhD candidate who holds a master’s degree in computer science from Indiana University where he specialized in computational linguistics. A CDK colleague refers to him as “our resident genius.”

I ask Kessler what one must do to get that job title. He laughs and says, “I’m not so sure. A lot of people around here are smarter than I am.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com