This year’s treacherous winter may have set back automotive sales thus far, but the industry has no reason to worry – the National Automobile Dealers Assn. predicts 16.4 million new cars and light trucks will be sold or leased in the U.S. in 2014, compared with a pace of 15.2 million through the year’s first two months.

Who will close that gap? Marketers.

What’s truly impressive is more than two-thirds of those projected auto sales, 11 million, will be influenced by digital media. As winter melts away, marketers need to catch up to an increasingly digital consumer and prepare for an endless summer of sales.

How can auto marketers make sure their brand is top-of-mind for these consumers? Master “Digital First.”

Digital First is the mantra spread at the 2014 Detroit auto show by Mark LaNeve, chief operating officer of Global Team Ford, and it’s something auto marketers must master to stay ahead of competition.

With seven out of 10 auto shoppers saying they are 71% more likely to be influenced by digital ads, the rise of digital consumers and the Internet’s impact on the automotive industry is undeniable.

Digital advertising spend for auto advertisers is forecast by eMarketer to rise 12.8% to $7.8 billion by 2017. One in five U.S. ad dollars are from the automotive industry, and American auto marketers currently invest between 20% and 40% of their total ad budgets in online and mobile formats.

But these numbers are the tip of the iceberg. Marketers only are just starting to embrace digital’s full potential.

We have an enormous opportunity to create authentic experiences with multiple touch points across channels and devices. The first step is allocating dollars against the media channels that people turn to daily. The digital-first consumer is hungry for information about vehicles in the form of reviews, videos, pricing, specs, quotes and everything in between, on any device.

Perhaps most telling is the 65% increase in time people have spent on digital media since 2010. According to eMarketer, interaction with mobile and desktop jumped from 3 hours, 11 minutes to 5 hours, 16 minutes, surpassing TV for the first time in 2013.

Not all of digital’s gains came at the expense of other media, either. People stay connected via various outlets simultaneously and that poses an opportunity for marketers.

The purchase funnel no longer is top-down. Today’s sales cycle actually is more cyclical in the sense that consumers always are in some degree of “shopping mode,” because of their constant state of connectedness.

Automakers should embrace that and mold to consumer digital-first behavior, even before shoppers are indexed as “in market” by traditional ad models.

For example, J.D. Power & Associates recently reported new-vehicle purchasers age 25 and younger see their vehicle as an extension of themselves. Consumers view brands more positively that reflect their own personalities, and to be part of these highly personal purchases, automakers must form real connections that encourage action, often across multiple channels concurrently.

The days of thinking of digital as “another media” are long gone. Digital is a way of life, and the industry’s increasing support of digital-first consumers demonstrates the need to keep up with the dynamic media ecosystem.

Nissan is fully embracing digital with its agency, Nissan United, which makes digital storytelling around a product a top priority.

“The customer doesn't really receive digital media the way they do traditional media,” Jose Munoz, chairman of Nissan North America, is quoted as saying. “They engage digital media, they consume it on their own terms and timetables, and it's nonlinear: They jump from watching a video to locating a vehicle to building and pricing a car to emailing their dealer.”

With consumers “always on” and digital habits such as “showrooming” becoming increasingly common, marketers are challenged with targeting consumers across all devices, while still keeping pace with the adoption of new technologies and media channels.

We have to think of digital advertising as more than just delivering information to the car-buying public where they’re spending most of their time.

We’re building lifelong relationships online between brands and people, whether it’s on a smartphone, tablet, TV, laptop, desktop or whatever new technology appears in the coming years.

Raj Gill is vice president-automotive for Adconion Direct, a global provider of cross-channel advertising across display, video, mobile, email and social on all devices. Previously he was vice president and associate digital media director for Team Detroit, WPP Group's global agency group servicing Ford.