AutoTrader.com: A Case of Trading in Content


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Article ImageCompany: Autotrader.com

Launched in May 1998 as AutoConnect, AutoTrader.com, Inc. has been a go-to website for car buyers since its renaming in 1999. A decade later, the now high-traffic website sees 16 million unique visitors per month and has about 40,000 dealer customers and 250,000 private sellers of vehicles at any one time. Having recently acquired one of its biggest competitors, Kelley Blue Book Co., Inc., AutoTrader.com is set to see about $1 billion in revenue this year.
www.autotrader.com


Business Challenge

As a website known particularly for its classified listings, original editorial content had always been put on the back burner for AutoTrader.com. Scott Markle, now the website's senior manager of content strategy, asked for a chance to see what could be done with editorial content in early 2009 and has been working on it ever since that summer. In order to work toward publishing more original editorial content, AutoTrader.com needed to find a CMS that could handle its high traffic as well as simplify its complicated initial model.


Vendor of Choice: percussion

A provider of web content management (WCM) software to high-traffic websites, Percussion Software, Inc. offers solutions for nontechnical users to easily manage its content straight out of the box. Strongly focused on providing software to more than 14,000 organizations, mostly in the North American and U.K. markets, Percussion customers include major companies such as Hotwire, Inc. and Kohls.
www.percussion.com


The Problem In-Depth

AutoTrader.com had been a Percussion customer since 2001, using the CMS software. According to Markle, the software was powering its syndicated content but not the editorial content. "We didn't have any original editorial, so it was doing a good job of bringing stuff in via feeds and putting it out on the site, but there wasn't anything being entered," says Markle.

In working with the old website, Markle had about 1,500 different content types to work with, along with hundreds of publishing editions. It would take 3 to 4 hours to publish content with these restrictions. "This was not a fault of Percussion, it was our own development and building on the system over eight years," says Markle.

In order to upgrade the site to suit its classifieds as well as its editorial needs, Markle wanted to invest solely in AutoTrader.com's content, not its staff. He knew that bringing in full-time employees to increase content production would be an expensive resource, so he turned to the idea of using affordable freelance writers. All he needed to do was find a system simple enough to make it work.

The Solution

After evaluating various options, AutoTrader.com decided that Percussion was still the best fit for its business because of its decoupled model. According to Markle, there are many CMS software options that want to both manage and serve the content to the users, but this was not a realistic option for the site seeing as a great deal of its content doesn't live within the CMS.

"All of our 3.5 million listings, those all live in other systems," says Markle. "It would be very hard for us to integrate that into a CMS-served page, and it would be very hard for most CM systems out there to be able to handle our traffic."

Joe Wykes, president of Percussion Software, says that its CMS software is something that makes life easier for content experts. It is particularly good for sites such as AutoTrader.com that need large-scale performance to handle high traffic but also have requirements to integrate with their own custom applications or third party systems.

"In a case like AutoTrader where they've got their own video applications, search applications, advertising applications, there's a great complex," says Wykes. "[The] CM system is allowing them to embrace that level of integration."

A major part of reworking the site was in the way that AutoTrader.com handled the copy within the software. In the past, Markle had CMS developers managing the content, which, he says, is not optimal. "It's an expensive resource to have manage our content. So what we want to do is have our copywriters be able to manage that themselves and with the new system that will be much easier for them to do," says Markle.

The simplicity of Percussion's software would also allow AutoTrader.com to maximize results with minimal additional resources. Wykes describes content management software as something that has very much increased in complexity and, in turn, comes at a high price. Percussion's approach is to not drive more services and consulting but to put the product in the hands of the marketers so that they can have control. "Our role is to help them think through that modeling in the design of the content architecture and then train them," says Wykes. "Train them, and equip them to build out that capability through the configuration of the system."

The Outcome

During the last 6 to 9 months, AutoTrader.com has worked with Percussion to upgrade and refine the inner workings of the system. The 1,500 content types that were in the system were turned into just 20 with the upgrade. Publishing content has improved and now only takes minutes instead of hours, which in turn has increased productivity.

"We're now publishing eight items, articles and videos, per day-we were doing around five per day with the old system. The plan is to ramp up to 10 by the end of the year," says Markle. "The big news is we're doubling capacity without adding resources."

Although AutoTrader.com ended up doubling its budget of $50,000 to about $100,000, Markle admits that they did expand the scope of what the company anticipated from the beginning of the project. "The goal was really to sort of not stop our core business, to have them come in and be able to focus on producing and building out the upgrade without us having to kind of take our resources off and switch them over," says Markle.

AutoTrader.com now has a new and updated aesthetic appeal on the outside, but it is prepared to handle the increase in original editorial content that Markle and the team at Percussion had been working toward. "You and I can go to that site and we'll still get great content and we'll still get a great experience. But the process of the production behind that, behind the curtain, is going to be radically simplified," says Wykes.

While Markle is happy with the progress AutoTrader.com has made, he has big plans for the site going forward. The success of this upgrade has allowed him to envision even more flexibility with entering content into the system.

"[I'd like to] have a writer on the floor of an auto show actually typing out an article on [his] phone while [he's] there, and have it go directly into the content management system," says Markle. "And have a photo added by the producer and reviewed and up on the site within a couple minutes."

Right now, AutoTrader.com is a resource for people who know what kind of car to buy. The goal is to turn it into a primary resource for consumers who are looking to research cars as well. "If you're trying to figure out what kind of car you want, people tend to start somewhere else then move to AutoTrader when they're ready to buy," says Markle. "We want people to start on AutoTrader, and stay here."