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Updated 16 Oct 2019


How AutoTrader anticipated change

AutoTrader South Africa is an online behemoth, boasting more than three million visitors each month. Not that long ago, though, the brand faced the very real possibility of extinction.


GG van Rooyen, Entrepreneur, 15 April 2016  Share  0 comments  Print


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Vital Stats

  • Player: George Mienie
  • Company: AutoTrader South Africa
  • Established: 1992
  • Visit: www.autotrader.co.za

Key learnings

  • Trends are out there to be identified. Being caught unprepared is unacceptable.
  • Change needs to be tracked through the use of a measurable KPI.
  • Don’t be afraid to act pre-emptively.
  • Do research. Know your customer.
  • Create an unprecedented user experience.

By the mid-2000s, it was becoming clear that the world was changing. The internet was going mainstream, placing massive pressure on industries that only a few years earlier had seemed untouchable.

The print industry in particular was coming under threat, with readers moving to the internet for information. Things didn’t change overnight, though. The general decline in readership was steady but quite slow.

Like a frog sitting in a slowly-heated pot of water, it was all too easy to ignore the evidence. AutoTrader South Africa, however, was not willing to accept death by attrition.

Related: Adrian Gore – The disrupter

Measuring change

Autotrader -resources

“When it comes to the digital realm, you can never complain that some development impacted you unexpectedly. The writing is always on the wall, provided you’re taking notice,” says AutoTrader CEO George Mienie.

Long before the global shift to digital mediums started to affect AutoTrader in a real way, the company began to prepare for the inevitable.

“We knew it was coming. The shift to digital was already starting in places such as the US and Europe,” says Mienie. 

“We also knew that we needed to measure this shift in a reliable way. When it comes to managing difficult change, you need a KPI that you can reliably measure.”

Comparing unique users of a website to the circulation of the magazine wasn’t reliable enough, since it was impossible to truly know how many people had used any given copy as a reference when shopping for a vehicle. Some other KPI was needed.

“We settled on leads to dealers. We wanted to track how many people had actually contacted vehicle dealers thanks to the magazine, versus how many had contacted a dealer because of the website,” says Mienie.

Finding a KPI

Tracking website leads and comparing them to magazine leads sounds like a simple idea, until you actually start to think about it. If it’s hard to know how many people used a single copy of AutoTrader as a reference, how do you figure out how many leads the mag has generated? It was a conundrum.

Tracking leads on the website would be easier, provided you were willing to harm the user-friendliness of the site. AutoTrader wasn’t willing to do this.

“We could track website leads by forcing every user to fill in some kind of form before gaining access to a dealer’s details, but we weren’t willing to do this,” says Mienie.

“Today, the average user spends a phenomenal amount of time on our site. A typical visit lasts 12 minutes, and we believe this is because our site is easy to use. While KPIs are important, they shouldn’t come at the expense of the user. Everything should be done to make the experience for the client or user as pleasant as possible.

“With this in mind, we give our software engineers a lot of freedom. They don’t need to seek permission to improve the site. If they’ve been working on something that they think will improve the website, they can run with it. You never want bureaucracy to stand in the way of improvement.”

An innovative solution

In order to effectively measure leads from both AutoTrader magazine and the website, the company came up with a very elegant solution called Call Tracker.

The solution was so elegant and transparent that even regular consumers of AutoTrader probably wouldn’t have noticed its existence.

How does it work? The number that you find for any given dealer in the AutoTrader magazine or on the website was not the same as the regular number of that dealer, although, the number was dedicated to a dealer.

Instead, it is a technology that redirected the call through the company to the dealer. Thus, giving AutoTrader the ability to measure leads via phone to the dealer, which was the most-used way in which consumers got in touch with dealers in those years.

Importantly, the company regularly placed a different number for specific dealers on the website and in the magazine, meaning AutoTrader could track exactly which platform a lead was generated from, and give the dealers useful insights into his/her dealership’s response.

AutoTrader had in essence created a reliable but simple KPI, using sophisticated technology at the time, that could be used to track consumers’ migration from print to digital.

Related: How passion fuelled the growth of Branding Design SA

The watershed

Autotrader -staff

As mentioned, the migration of users was fairly slow. AutoTrader had started monitoring the trend in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the website took over from the magazine as the core focus of the business.

In the mid-2000s, the company had printed around 230 000 magazines each month, and managed to sell 55% of those on a regular basis.

Today, it sells about 30 000 magazines a month. However, as magazine sales have declined, the number of visitors to the website has skyrocketed, with more than three million visitors to the website every month, opening more than 40 million pages.

New competition

The migration of AutoTrader magazine advertisers (sellers) and consumers (buyers) to the website wasn’t guaranteed. Getting buyers and sellers of the magazine to embrace the AutoTrader website required hard work.

“As a magazine, we had a big advantage: Potential competitors were faced with very high barriers to entry. We had the capability to compile a 600-page magazine, print it and distribute it weekly. Any new competitor would have found it hard to match us,” says Mienie. “The internet, however, obliterated those barriers. Suddenly it was much easier to compete with AutoTrader.”

AutoTrader wasn’t afraid to pre-empt the digital shift. “You need to be willing to eat yourself. One of the things we did was to place the website prominently in the magazine, knowing that it would eat into sales. We had to take a short-term hit, but we knew that we would benefit from it in the long term.” The company also placed a huge emphasis on the user experience.

“You need to be the best,” says Mienie. “You need to lead the charge and be first to market with every new development. You also need to know and respect your consumer and dealer. We believe in creating a site that is easy to use and offers more content than you’ll find anywhere else. We also make it a priority to know the consumer’s car-buying journey and car sellers’ needs.

“But, the game is changing again, fewer and fewer consumers are using the phone, and to an even lesser degree email, to get in touch with dealers. Our research over the last year shows that more than 52% of car-buying consumers don't phone or email a car dealer, but simply take the address and visit the dealer directly.

Related: How Craig Bright and Brian Little launched Rocking the Daisies

“When it comes to managing great change within a company, research is incredibly important. But just doing research isn’t enough you need to use it effectively. The temptation exists to hog research because you don’t want competitors to get hold of it. That doesn’t work. We know exactly how much time the average consumer spends studying vehicles before buying a new car. We also know how much of that time is spent online (15 hours), and how much is spent in the physical world visiting dealers (14 hours), and this trend is shifting rapidly toward less time in the physical world and more time searching online, which means the consumer has pretty much made his choice before he leaves his screen. We give that info to our salespeople, who in turn give it to our clients (car sellers). Information needs to be disseminated.”

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About the author


GG van Rooyen, Entrepreneur


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