Autotrader's Mobile Strategy Reinvents Its Relationship With Readers

At this week's OMMA Global show in New York, mobile was pretty much a part of every conversation. And the discussions do not involve simply "getting into" mobile or seeing mobile as the logical extension of the digital strategy. Instead, I heard more people at more levels of companies understanding that the device offers them a unique opportunity to engage a customer at a different level. As we have been arguing in these pages for a couple of years now, mobile should reorient the relationship a brand has with its own base. If done well, it allows a brand to find its way into pieces of a user's life it never has before.

A great example of a company that is redefining its relationship with its customers through mobile is the longstanding car classifieds brand Autotrader. Once a ubiquitous print pub, the company's presence is now principally digital at It receives over 15 million uniques a month -- and as you might guess, shas an evolving mobile program. The mobile site gets about 12% to 15% of the digital traffic each month.

But the real mobile success story is in the one area where the company still has a strong print presence, AutotraderLatino. "The Latino market still has magazines and a propensity for print," says Jose Puente, director, mobile products and strategy, Autotrader. And at the same time, this is the market that is most heavily mobilized. In fact, at, 42% to 46% of monthly traffic is coming from mobile.

It is the connection between the two, print and mobile, where the brand finds its way more deeply into the car buy cycle among its readers. Typically print is not a very effective driver to traditional Web sites. But working with mobile provider Cellit, Autotrader fills its print pub with text codes for every classified and QR codes for every dealer display advertisement, which pushes users to specific models or dealerships in their mobile browser. While Autotrader does have apps as well, moving people into the SMS channel is integral because it allows them to capture the phone number. "Then you can enter into a back and forth conversation," says David Wachs, president and founder of Cellit.

It's in the conversation that things become more interesting. "When text sends you to the mobile Web site, it is a two-way communication platform," says Puente. "It is not only connecting the shopper with information about the car, but also sending an anonymous message to the seller of that vehicle that an anonymous buyer is interested. They have the ability to make an anonymous response through the Autotrader system to send a follow-up message."

The follow-up can add value for the consumer. It might inform the potential buyer that the car is already sold or just give the seller an opportunity to send additional and updated pricing information or a special offer to the buyer. "It alerts the seller of the behavior in real time and allows them to create an incentive for the shopper," Puente says. This two-way communication is proving monstrously powerful. "The consumer who gets the dealer or seller message has a 40% propensity to click to call that dealer."

Opening up the two-way communications channel in real time gives the process an immediacy and intimacy appropriate to the device. In essence, the text messaging with a vendor mimics the personal back and forth people have on their phones with friends and family. It moves the commercial relationship into the realm of the personal. "For the shopper, it makes the process relevant. For the dealer, it gives them the opportunity to respond in real time," he says. For Autotrader, this two-way messaging alters the brand's relationship with its own readers. "It evolves our value proposition from being a place to buy a car to being a broker of communication," notes Puente.

While text is a key part of the approach, Autotrader and Cellit are experimenting with a range of techniques in and out of the apps. There is an augmented reality component to the app and a voice search service for cars that lets you call into an automated system that will recognize the make and model you are looking for and return links to models via SMS. But what Puente has learned most of all is not to think of mobile as any one channel. "The lessons learned are that the worst mistake you can make is to think the Web site on a small screen is the objective," he says. "You want to embrace the scope of what mobile has to offer."

I met Puente at the Mobile Insider Summit in Lake Tahoe over the summer and was blown away by the mobile methods he is trying -- especially the incredible opportunities he is finding in the Latino market on this platform. So I asked him to come to the OMMA Mobile show in San Francisco on Oct. 25. He will be part of a lead-off panel of brand marketers discussing how they are using mobile as a way to better understand their own customer base.

1 comment about "Autotrader's Mobile Strategy Reinvents Its Relationship With Readers".
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  1. Kelly Mcivor from Atomic Mobile, September 28, 2011 at 3:07 p.m.

    Great to see companies, particularly a stalwart like AutoTrader, starting to grasp that mobile is about engagement and conversation. I'm very excited about what AutoTrader and Cellit are building. They serve as an example to other marketers.
    A recent program by Her Interactive (Nancy Drew PC games) involved engaging users in an SMS-based Nancy Drew mystery while layering in opportunities for social interaction and commerce. Nearly 50% of players promoted the game via Facebook, 75% opt-ed in to receive future messages and 10% redeemed the mobile coupon. We believe the success was due to the conversational nature of the program.

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