Auto Trader is fine-tuning its DMP to consolidate the automotive purchase journey

It might be known as the place to visit for buying and selling cars but Auto Trader wants to be an authority on the entire customer journey and is consolidating its data to deliver on that promise.

Manufacturer, dealership or advertising agency, the media business has you covered when it comes to offering automotive data for the programmatic age. Or at least it hopes it will once its fine tuned the data management platform (DMP) it has been quietly tweeking for the last year. Built using Adobe’s audience manager, the platform is now entrenched in Auto Trader’s ad tech stack for its display advertising and is already being mentioned in discussions with agencies.

Despite these early discussions, there are still a “few months” to go before the DMP gets oversight of the car purchasing journey, cautioned commercial director for digital Rakesh Patel. The reason being is that while Auto Trader is delivering the right ad space programmatically, it may not always be delivering the best creative for that particular moment, consequently limiting its ability to ‘premiumise’ its inventory. And that’s where the DMP could make the difference and convince advertisers to take the time to create ads for different stages of the path to purchase.

Essentially, the DMP will allow the business to segment its consumers according to where there are on a customer journey spanning awareness, preference, short listings, purchase and ownership. Features like the valuation tools it launched last year act as a source of data for this expanding repository, while the business also wants to boost the number of logged-in users in order to unearth more data signs of intent.

But offering detailed tracking on logged-in data alone is limited in scope and unrealistic for a business the size of Auto Trader. There are around a million logged-in users to the site in “any given month” said Patel and so he and his team are looking at probabilistic modelling to plug the gaps. It’s a far more complex method than relying on intent-based data, consisting of a myriad of algorithmic acrobats to map users to devices. Indeed, such was the complexity that Auto Trader sought out postgraduates from the University of Manchester to help it come up with a robust model.

“We’re still at the nascent stage when it comes to the DMP,” said Patel. “At the moment, we’re concentrating on clearly defining where individuals are in that buying journey… The challenge we face is actually a perception one more than anything else; when people think about Auto Trader they think about the purchase and short listings parts of the customer journey. So the challenge for us has been articulating the fact that we get data signals throughout, and then getting those right inputs into the DMP.”

Once all that is in place, Patel refused to rule out pumping third party data into it or plugging it into agency trading desks in order to allow advertisers to reach its visitors beyond its own site. This so-called audience extension is being increasingly adopted by publishers as a way to sell more inventory, though Patel wants to take his time to learn about it in order to properly make revenues from a strategy others have struggled to do so.

“We want to be able to offer something which doesn’t directly compete with the agency trading desk but instead support what they’re doing with the clients and give [car] manufacturers something different with us,” he continued.

Beyond the data, the media business is building out the native side of its advertising proposition. Launched last month, the ads appear among the classified listings and are initially being sold to car makers instead of its core audience of second-hand car dealerships. Because these ads don’t appear at the top of the page they won’t have the highest viewability (approx. 60 per cent), although Patel assured they will appear in the "heartland of our site" (its listings) and be the “most responsive” based on “strong” tests.

In a previous interview with The Drum, Patel revealed one of his goals is to show how Auto Trader’s ads drive sales. Since then it has been able to prove the impact of those ads from its in-house Creative Solutions department thanks to its ability to match customer postcode data from dealerships with its own postcode data from searches. However, there’s still work to do on the impact of its display ads.

Data modelling, audience extension and cross device targeting, are strategies usually associated with the likes of Facebook and Buzzfeed than they are with a classified ads business. And yet they are Auto Trader’s priorities for the mid-term, a sign of just how quickly the business is changing in a market where car manufacturer’s revenues are diversifying to embrace mobile, connectivity features and on-demand services.

“In the digital economy we live in today consumers might not want to own a car for five years so manufacturers are thinking about their businesses when ownership drops and how they provide new cars on a regular basis,” explained Patel. “Our long-term aim is to make this process more efficient for all our stakeholders.”

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