Autotrader.com
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Holmes Report
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Autotrader.com

AutoTrader.com, the Internet’s largest online classifieds site, was in a media relations slump. The company didn’t have any news, partnerships or acquisitions to report and media were tired of writing about site traffic and other corporate soft news.

Paul Holmes

AutoTrader.com, the Internet’s largest online classifieds site, was in a media relations slump.  The company didn’t have any news, partnerships or acquisitions to report and media were tired of writing about site traffic and other corporate soft news.  Access Communications decided to create a weekly media relations program that would highlight the one thing they did have going for them – the ubiquitous appeal of automobiles to a mass audience.  Since nearly every newspaper and magazine reader drives and/or owns a car (a time-consuming and expensive investment,) a natural interest in learning about ways to care for, maintain and enjoy automobiles created an opportunity for AutoTrader.com to become a consumer information source.  This new program would allow Access to position the company as the “expert” in car care, preventative maintenance and provide media with “did you know” factoids that are irresistible to consumers. 

RESEARCH and PLANNING:

Access’s internal research team reviewed similar “self-help”-type coverage achieved by other companies and identified similar opportunities for AutoTrader.com (i.e. Phillips issued a list of tips for consumers to save money on electricity during the height of California’s rolling blackouts.)

Conducted telephone media audit to determine whether reporters would welcome auto-related factoids that either mirrored topical news hooks (such as the East Coast heat wave) or evergreen topics.Conducted multiple brainstorms and client conference calls to develop consumer-related topics that mirrored newsworthy, topical issues; conducted informal consumer audit to gauge interest in various auto-related angles.

EXECUTION:

A long-term program entitled “AutoTrader.com’s Fast Lane Facts” was borne primarily out of a brainstorm in mid-October 2000 after the Access team conducted proactive outreach to key auto editors at dailies, as well as consumer reporters at radio talk shows, television morning shows and online news sites to gauge interest in a tipsheet of preventative auto maintenance advice.  This tipsheet was drafted to support National Car Care Month, a time when drivers are urged to focus attention to the benefits of maintaining vehicles.  The response was so positive that the Access team decided to launch a formal weekly program designed to give editors tips and factoids to share with their readers, either as a sidebar to a larger news story or as a stand-alone piece, which they could use as content fillers.  Do-it-yourself or money-saving tips always seem to be popular and AutoTrader.com’s content filled that need for relevant, useful information that editors could use to fill space if needed.

Throughout Q4 2000 and throughout 2001, helpful tips on a bevy of topics were sent on a regular basis to more than 150 reporters who either cover the auto industry or who expressed a desire to receive AutoTrader.com’s weekly email of tips.  Information was also sent to morning and drive-time hosts of radio stations, as well as to morning show producers and assignment desks at television stations.  Many times, these tips were formatted to fit a specific geographic area of the country to capitalize on current events. 

For example, tips on how to safely navigate flooded roadways were sent to media in areas experiencing heavy rainfall one particular week.  During the Ford/Firestone tire crises, three different tire safety executions were conducted over a two-month period, educating consumers on how to check their own tires—regardless of whether or not they owned the suspect models—to make sure tread wore evenly and what to do to resolve problems.  Access was also able to take the program to consumer reporters who regularly cover money-saving or do-it-yourself tips on a myriad of topics.  These reporters continue to be among those most receptive to regularly running AutoTrader.com’s tips.

Sample topics of interest (timely news hooks in parenthesis) included:
· Lean and Green Autos (Earth Day)
· Gasoline Octane and What It Means To You?
· Preparing Your Car For Winter (October)
· How To Care For Your Tires (Firestone crisis)
· How To Change Your Oil (Car Care Month)
· Emergency Items For Your Car (Winter prep)
· Finding the Best Car Insurance
· What Your Car Color Says About You
· How To Tell If You’re Buying A Lemon
· Tips For Safe, Fun Road Trips (Spring Break/Summer)
· Ways To Pass Time In Traffic
· Ten Ways To Avoid Accidents
· What To Do If Involved In an Accident
· How To Protect Your Car From Theft
· Best Time Of Year To Buy A Car (Fall)
· Things To Look For When Buying Used
· Tips On Driving In Wet Weather or During A Flood (Midwest flooding)
· Car Sounds, Smells and What They Mean
· Highway Signs and What They Mean
· How to Drive Safely During Summer Heat (Summer heat waves)
· Ways To Save Money On Gas (nationwide record-breaking gas prices)

The program achieved greatest success when Access utilized a topical, relevant current event as the news hook.  Tire care (Firestone/Ford crises) and rising gas prices (across many states) were two examples where AutoTrader.com’s helpful car tips (Fast Lane Facts) were welcomed by all media– print, broadcast, online and even with media on college campuses.  So welcome, in fact, that the information was often used word for word in media outlets across the country.  Many Fast Lane Facts led to radio interviews with AutoTrader.com executives, as well.

RESULTS:

INITIAL GOAL:
1 hit per month
SUSTAINED RESULTS:
Average 3-4 hits per week

HIT RATIO:
12-15 hits per month – often reprinted verbatim
Attributed to AutoTrader.com – regularly syndicated in huge circulations
More than 25 radio interviews with AT.com execs
More than 8 million impressions / year

Over the course of the program, coverage has been secured with publications including: 
Washington Post (syndicated nationally multiple times,) The Chicago Tribune, The Orlando Sentinel, Austin American-Statesman (multiple times,) The Oakland Tribune, The Oregonian, The Herald (WA), The Saginaw News (MI), The Time Leader (OH), Times-Star Alameda (CA), Home News Tribune (CT), The Daily News Tribune (MA), Home News Tribune (East Brunswick, NJ), Fort Collins Coloradoan, The East Valley Tribune (AZ), Business Fleet Magazine, Home News Tribune (PA), Milford Daily News (MA), The Fremont Argus (CA), The Everett Herald (WA), Reading Eagle- Times (PA), Tri-Valley Herald (CA), Metrowest Daily News (MA), The Providence Journal (RI), Salisbury Post (NC), Automotive News, KULR-TV (NBC- MT), KFOR-AM  (NE), KFWB-AM (CBS - CA - multiple times), WWJ-AM  (MI), WAAM-AM  (MI), KCSN-FM (Cal State Northridge), KCNZ-AM  (IA), Home & Away Cincinnati, Home & Away Indiana, Home & Away Nebraska, AAA Wisconsin Home & Away, CBSMarketWatch.com, shedrives.com and AutoChannel.com.

Because the Access team had created such a rich internal database of editors interested in receiving each Fast Lane Facts tipsheet, broad distribution via BusinessWire was rarely used, which also cut down on costs.  A monthly budget averaging just 9 percent of the monthly $85,000 budget was used to brainstorm new, timely ideas, research pertinent information, write the tipsheet and follow up with media on a weekly basis.

ANALYSIS:

This program was (and still is) a very cost-effective way to generate and sustain awareness of AutoTrader.com as the country’s premier source “for consumers to visit when making a new or used vehicle purchase, sale or seeking information such as price comparisons, safety tips, financing, insurance or warranty information.”

AutoTrader.com name replayed in 100% of coverage

AutoTrader.com tagline (Internet’s largest online classifieds site) replayed in 80% of coverage

Positioned AutoTrader.com as an authority on everything related to vehicles (a spot no other company had claimed)

With no corporate news, this program became a life-saving ink generator for another dot-com trying to get their name before millions of consumers that are concerned about their vehicles.  

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Technology-New Media
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