Comparing AutoTrader.com and Cars.com
Our conclusion to the years old AutoTrader.com and Cars.com comparison debate boils down to one simple word, "don't." We've seen and heard lots of these debates over the year. What follows is our take on why the most commonly used comparisons just don't hold up, as well as our recommended approach to dealers.
Relative Number of Site Visitors
When you buy AutoTrader.com or Cars.com you are not buying access to the audience on those websites. You are buying access to the vast audience across those networks of websites. For many years, these companies have been posting the millions of vehicles listed on their websites on other sites as well. Some of these sites are regional, so this added benefit is not evenly distributed geographically. Of course, the popularity of the core sites varies geographically as well. If you are selling vehicles nationally or across a huge region, like Finish Line Ford or Suzuki of Wichita, then total audience size matters. But for most dealers, what matters is the relative audience in the dealer's market. Getting good metrics on visitation that are consistently defined for both services across your market is difficult to impossible. Some markets are relatively strong for one service vs. another. Cars.com is very strong in Boston and Chicago, but that is not the case in San Antonio. Does that mean Cars.com is worth half as much as AutoTrader.com in San Antonio? One-third? One-fourth? We don't think it is possible to gauge the comparative value based on audience alone. Smaller audiences tend to attract a smaller number of competing dealers.
Experience of Trainers and Other Vendors
We've heard trainers and vendors try to weigh in on this discussion, because they can bring larger sample sizes to the debate than most dealers can. However, the degree to which those samples of dealership results on Cars.com and AutoTrader.com are representative of your brand in your market is almost nil. Even if a vendor had results from 100 stores in the same market, the results vary greatly from store to store based on product, price, and merchandising. AutoTrader.com was always better than Cars.com at attracting Pickup Truck buyers, so Cars.com bought Pickuptrucks.com and put their truck inventory on that site as well. Has that closed the gap? Is Cars.com as good for Dodge dealers in your market as it is for Lexus dealers? Are Cars.com and AutoTrader.com impacted equally in your market by adoption of a velocity pricing strategy? I doubt your trainer, or anyone else, can answer these questions.
Cost per VDP
Dennis was once a leading advocate for Cost per VDP as the strongest comparative metric. It remains the supreme metric for comparing one Cars.com package to another or one AutoTrader.com package to another. VDPs are very useful in comparing packages within a company, but they cannot be compared across companies. DrivingSalesData.com is a site that allows dealers to anonymously input their data and see where they stand relative to competing dealers, at no cost. Within that site, we have gathered enough trending data from enough dealers using both services to be extremely confident in saying this vital metric is not comparable across companies as currently reported.
Cost Per Sale
Cost Per Sale relies on your ability to track all five forms of contact generated by these sites: phone, email, chat, visit to your dealership site, and walk-in. Of these, walk-in traffic is largely thought to be the one generating the largest numbers and the one that is most difficult to track. Does your sourcing program include attribution to the entire network of sites or just the core site? Secondly, not all sales have the same value. Does the site do a good job of selling the portion of your inventory that is most difficult to sell, the portion that offers the best margins, or the portion that you were going to sell quickly anyway? Cost per Sale is a useful metric, but not a sufficient metric for comparing one vendor to another.
You Don't Need to Decide
We hate to see dealers waste time on a decision they don't need to make. You don't need to know which service sells more vehicles. You don't even need to know which one is most cost effective. You just need to know that each service is cost effective or you don't buy that service. These services compete over consumers, and they compete over additional places to put their dealers’ inventory and provide exposure for their dealers. But they don't need to compete for dealers. Consequently, you don't need to decide which is best. You have two distinct decisions to make: Should I use Cars.com? Should I use AutoTrader.com? Keep them separate and you'll find them quicker and easier decisions to make. When you find yourself dissatisfied with the results of either, look at the market demand for what you are stocking, your price to market, and your merchandising. Then ask yourself, "Is the product not working sufficiently to justify its price, or am I not working the product?" We have seen both cases, but the only thing that matters to your decision-making is your situation. Whether or not this same thinking applies universally across all listings publisher is something we are still collecting data on.