Auto Sites Feed Some Gas to Online Marketing

The accepted wisdom in selling cars is that customers start looking for their next ride the moment they drive their current purchase off the lot. But the Internet and its research possibilities have added focus to the last eight to 12 weeks of that decision process, making that the most crucial time in which to reach the prospect and convert him or her from a digital tire-kicker to a showroom visitor.

A couple of leading automotive Web retailer networks have taken this time crunch to heart and added recent features to their marketing and promotional programs that should help pull customers off their desktops and onto the lots of their dealer-members.

Atlanta-based AutoTrader.com, majority-owned by Cox Enterprises, bills itself as the “Internet’s leading auto classifieds marketplace and consumer information Website.” The site includes 3 million vehicle listings from 40,000 dealers and 250,000 private owners, and posted 12 million unique visitors in March 2006.

“We don’t sell cars,” says Jim Franchi, AutoTrader’s director of product management. “We’re a marketplace that brings buyers and sellers together. If buyers need to buy a car tomorrow, we’ve got the answers for them, but if they want to do some research and buy in 60 days, we can help with that too. We offer people lots of ways to contact dealers—by e-mail, phone or fax.” AutoTrader earns its revenue by charging sellers to appear on its site. Private owners can get ad packages that range from $15 to $75 dollars; dealers pay more.

But consumers tend to shop for dealers as much as for models; they want to buy from someone who offers the services that will keep them satisfied over the life of the vehicle. “We found from our research that people want to know as much as they can about the business they’re buying from,” Franchi said. “People want to have confidence that if something goes wrong with the car, they can get it serviced properly and get the right guarantees.”

So AutoTrader beta-tested a “Find Your Dealer” search feature on its Web site starting in February. Now out of beta and in full launch, the feature lets visitors enter keywords on which to search—not just makes and models but concepts such as specials, financing, “bad credit”, “factory authorized service center” and so on—enter their ZIP code and the radius they want to search, and pull up AutoTrader advertisers whose business profiles fit those criteria.

The results default to a distance ranking, but users can rearrange those to sort by dealer name or services and specialties. They can also further refine those search results by ticking off other attributes they’re looking for, including special financing, services like body shops and courtesy shuttles, certified pre-owned inventory, and even the languages spoken at the dealerships, from Spanish and polish to Tagalog and American Sign Language.

“We allow the dealers to select attributes that they can then market on our Web site,” Franchi says. “If they offer free loaner cars or free oil changes for cars financed through their businesses, we let them get that information out. We want to give more details to buyers about the sellers, once they’ve found the car that they’re looking for.”

Adding search filters changes the results page immediately, and clicking on a result brings the user to an AutoTrader landing page specific to that dealer with a vehicle inventory (with photos), a bar graph showing inventory by category (convertible, sedan, SUV, truck, etc.), a Mapquest map with driving directions, and links to the dealer’s Web site, if any.

Feedback since the beta launch has been anecdotal but positive from both buyers and dealers, Franchi says.

Both AutoTrader.com and most of the other car-buying Web sites try to get in front of prospects by striking partnerships with other Internet portals; for example, AutoTrader has deals with Yahoo! Autos, AOL, Edmunds.com and NADAGuides.com, among others. But even when they’re in the market for a car, most people aren’t spending more than 5% of their online time doing research on automotive sites. That means much jostling for exposure on those car-related sites, and also heavy competition for automotive keywords in search marketing.

That crowded field is the reason another online dealer advertising network, Jumpstart Automotive Media, opted to make the leap earlier this month into behaviorally-targeted advertising. Starting in [[??]], visitors who surf either to Jumpstart’s auto sites or to the Web sites of its more than 1,000 dealer clients will be re-targeted to see auto ads when they visit any of the 13,500 other sites in the ValueClick behavioral network.

“Our network of publishers reaches about 5.5 million unique car shoppers per month across sites like NADAGuide, Vehix, Consumer Guide and J.D. Power Automotive,” says Mitch Lowe, CEO of Jumpstart. But ad inventories at those contextual sites are under tremendous pressure, he says. Dealers are competing for eyeballs not only among themselves but with the car manufacturers themselves, whom marketing research firm eMarketer recently projected will spend $2.7 billion on online ads in 2007.

And the catch-and-release shape of the car buying cycle, in which consumers purchase a car and then disappear from the market for three or four years, makes that 8-to-twelve-week window of ad opportunity even more crucial for dealers and manufacturers.

That’s why the move into behavioral advertising makes sense, Lowe says. “We have great reach across the leading automotive research sites, but we wanted to find a way to reach in-market consumers across the larger Web, where they spend most of their time.”

And Jumpstart will be able to target those would-be owners by combining ValueClick’s behavioral targeting platform with the information it has collected about those consumers from its own Web site. “We gather a lot of data about what visitors to our sites are looking for—full-size SUVs, luxury cars, what two makes or models they’re comparing, and so on,” he says. “And we want to be able to target them knowing not just that they’re in the market for a new car but that they’re considering a Ford Explorer versus a Chevy Tahoe.”

Jumpstart launched some early tests of behavioral ad targeting early this year on various networks and single-site publishers and with manufacturer clients. But the company wanted to partner with an ad network that offered advanced optimization, transparency into the sites running the ads, and the tech chops to do sequential messaging to visitors. That’s what led Jumpstart to partner with ValueClick, says Lowe. “With their 13,500 Web sites and the 121 million unique people they reach each month, they give us an entirely new breadth on which to do this targeting.”

ValueClick announced it was adding behavioral targeting to its display advertising network in April. “We already had the massive distribution network, so by adding behavioral, we found ourselves very far ahead of other players in this space who have good technology but struggle to get the distribution,” says Jeff Hirsch, senior vice president for business development at ValueClick U.S. “We identified the automotive market as one of the best we could apply this to, where advertisers are looking to invest a lot of money to reach buyers at key times. But we just don’t know that market as well as a company like Jumpstart, and we were very excited to find that they had the same interest.”

Jumpstart will have exclusive rights to market automotive ads in ValueClick’s network, but the company will still be able to look at other ad networks; ValueClick’s status will be that of a “preferred provider” for Jumpstart ads.

One shape the behavioral ads might take is “conquest” campaigns on automotive research sites, so that Honda, for example, can target visitors who have research the Toyota Camry or compared it to a Honda Accord. (These ads would not be served to visitors to the Toyota site itself, only to the third-party research sites.)

Advertisers could also re-target visitors to their own sites, so that someone who went to look at the Accord on Honda’s site could then surf to other pages in the ValueClick networks soon after and see ads specially designed to drive them to a Honda conversion.

Look for more attempts by ValueClick to open their network up to behavioral targeting in other verticals. Press reports have it that the company could also launch a program for travel marketers.

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