Autotrader.com: From Fumble to Touchdown
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Autotrader.com: From Fumble to Touchdown

Before the media could begin dissecting the dot-com failures from last year – Access Communications began to develop a strategy to position AutoTrader.com as a survivor among the ruins.

Paul Holmes

 

In January 2000, AutoTrader.com spent 1.5 million dollars to purchase 30 seconds of advertising time during the Super Bowl. They weren’t alone. All in all, 17 dot-com and tech companies made an unheard of investment and engaged in an all out commercial blitz, spending their entire yearly marketing budgets to buy up this expensive airtime to put their unknown brands in front of millions of consumers. Before the media could begin dissecting the dot-com failures from last year – Access Communications began to develop a strategy to position AutoTrader.com as a survivor among the ruins. The team crafted a pitch that was designed to provide reporters covering Super Bowl advertising with a new angle. 

CHALLENGE/OPPORTUNITY

For some of the big spenders, site traffic spiked for a few days following the Super Bowl – stayed higher for a month or two – then fell back to or below previous levels. In the months following game, it became clear that many dot-com companies who had advertised during the big game were fumbling and big ad budgets were a thing of the past. Most had stock prices trading at or below their IPO price and site traffic was way down. In fact, 2 of the 17 dot-com companies who advertised in last year's Super Bowl had folded and at least 7 others were seeing stock prices tumble dramatically.  The demise of the dot-com was evident, as close to 300 Internet companies had shut their doors in the past year.

However, it wasn’t doom and gloom for all dot-com companies. AutoTrader.com, the leading Internet destination for buyers and sellers of used cars, debuted their first ever television commercial “Whoosh” during the game. Not only did AutoTrader.com see an immediate site traffic surge of 900 percent in the seconds following the airing of the ad – it has since settled at a 400 percent increase.

While AutoTrader.com steadily gained ground in the e-automotive space, the media began jumping on Pets.com and other dot-com door closures and sharply criticized their marketing/advertising strategies. The 2001 Super Bowl was promising to be a very scaled down version of the “dot-com bowl” and more fodder for the dot-com demise story the media was so eager to report. In fact, traditional advertisers such as Pepsi and Budweiser were buying up most of the commercial time while start-ups were struggling to stay afloat.

In the year since their commercial gave a kick-start to the AutoTrader.com brand name, site traffic had increased from 1.3 million unique visits a month to 5 million unique visits a month. Revenues were up and business was booming. Following the withdrawal of the S-1 filing and the end of the “quiet period,” it became clear the company had a success story to tell. The Access Communications team had the foresight to get out ahead of the curve and use the Super Bowl as another platform to tell AutoTrader.com’s “success story.”

AutoTrader.com is one of the few dot-coms that continues to increase its > ad/marketing budget, continues to draw more traffic to its site and is continuing the fast track to > profitability.

RESEARCH/PLANNING/OBJECTIVES

While AutoTrader.com had in fact experienced a huge boost from the purchase of the 2000 Super Bowl spot, they had known all along they wouldn’t be returning in 2001 for more of the advertising action. Access was worried AutoTrader.com would be lumped into the category of dot-com failures who simply didn’t have the funds to buy another commercial. We wanted to ensure that we were included favorably in potential > “where are they now?” features or wrap ups that would undoubtedly mention last year’s “Dot-com Bowl.”

Months before the ad spots were even purchased, Access worked with our internal Research Department to do an analysis on the advertisers from last year and created a chart that illustrated the status of each company. The team also conducted a media audit of top tier reporters who covered the Super Bowl dot-com frenzy last year and asked them whether the backlash would be a hot story this year. The answer was a resounding yes. 

To better develop an effective story, we spent considerable time talking with AutoTrader.com’s internal marketing team and representatives from their ad agency, Doner. This allowed our team to fully understand the strategy behind their long-term ad and marketing campaign. From these agency summits, we were able to create strong messaging points and work them into the development of our pitch. 

In addition, Access recognized a secret weapon in the form of Clark Wood, vice president of marketing at AutoTrader.com. With an extensive background in advertising and a playful and witty conversational style, Clark was the perfect expert to offer analysis of last year’s commercials and explain confidently why AutoTrader.com had opted not to participate in this year’s Super Bowl ad buys. Access spent considerable time preparing him for interviews by compiling background information on past and upcoming advertisers, gathering statistics about the dot-com demise and creating his sound bytes and key messages.

Our objectives were:

  • To prove AutoTrader.com’s success story by showcasing AutoTrader.com’s site traffic, visibility, and sustainability in downturn market
  • To position AutoTrader.com as an industry leader
  • To leverage last year’s campaign as a success and springboard for 2001 and beyond
  • To convey winning market strategy
  • To continue building brand awareness and drive site traffic by triggering memories of last year’s ad

STRATEGIC APPROACH

We wanted to lead business and ad/marketing reporters to the bigger story about how bad advertising strategies played into the demise of some dot-com companies.  Our main goal was to tout AutoTrader.com as a “survivor” and provide the perspective of a company who had used the Super Bowl as a brand-building springboard – but made a strategic (not financial) choice not to buy ad time again. 

CAMPAIGN EXECUTION

We developed an e-mail and phone pitch and embarked on an all out media relations blitz. The team targeted more than 500 short lead and long lead reporters with e-mail blast and snail-mail packets that included glossy one-sheets with football field illustrations and detailed background research material. In essence, the story was already written. We targeted different audiences including: ad/marketing trades, ad/marketing reporters of business publications and newspapers, business reporters covering the dot-com demise, entertainment reporters, sports reporters and automotive writers. Media outreach included newspaper, newsmagazine, television, radio, wire services and web sites.

RESULTS

Our messaging was extremely well received and multiple top tier reporters answered our initial e-mail pitch with responses such as, “Great minds think alike. We'd love to talk to you about this,” (MSNBC); “Thanks for the idea ... Ad Age always does a Super Bowl ad roundup, plus other Super Bowl-related stuff and this might be a good nugget. I will run it by people here and see how it can be built in,” (Ad Age); “This is a great pitch,” (CNET); and “I don’t usually say this, but that was a great pitch, (Industry Standard).
To date, we secured placements in over 64 media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Industry Standard (2 separate feature stories), Associated Press, The New York Times, Business Week (two separate interviews), USA Today, Investor’s Business Daily, CNBC, MSNBC.com, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Upside Today, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Detroit News, CNET-TV, The Hollywood Reporter, CBS Marketwatch, FOX News, Advertising Age, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Orlando Sentinel, The Plain Dealer, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, The Buffalo News, The Indianapolis Star, and The Hartford Courant.

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