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CMO Close-Up with Jeff Perkins, director-customer marketing, AutoTrader.com

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Jeff Perkins joined Atlanta-based AutoTrader.com in 2007 as the company was transitioning from its print-only catalog of cars for sale to a 100%-online directory. He was well-positioned for such a move. Previously he had been an account director at agency network Euro RSCG Worldwide, where he led all digital advertising efforts for Volvo Car Corp. Since joining AutoTrader.com, where he now serves as director-customer marketing, he's converted the company's sales collateral into iPad-friendly formats, helped devise custom digital pitches for prospect dealerships and launched the company's first foray into social media. CMO Close-Up: Most people may know AutoTrader.com as a website for finding cars for sale. Explain your b-to-b model? Jeff Perkins: AutoTrader customers are car dealerships and auto manufacturers. They place their inventory online with us, and we give them a variety of merchandising tools to help them stand out—such as photos, videos, links and so forth. Auto manufacturers place display ads around this inventory, focusing on awareness of new makes and models, sales events, etc. We also have media partnerships with about 20 newspapers, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Philadelphia Inquirer, plugging in relevant local auto listings into their sites. CMO Close-Up: The AutoTrader.com site has to appeal to both your b-to-b targets as well as consumers. How do you balance those two needs? Perkins: Google search is important to drive traffic to our site, both organic and paid. Interestingly, AutoTrader is one of the most commonly typed-in search terms. Another is Kelly Blue Book, which we acquired about 16 months ago. So we own two of the most powerful online brands for Google search. For other media, we have a big partnership with the National Basketball Association, and the “NBA on TNT” with Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal. For the industry, we merchandise the heck out of our consumer marketing. What we sell is audience, eyeballs. So it's critical for us to tell our customers all the ways we're driving people to their sites. In addition, we do lots of print advertising. For example, we work closely with Automotive News (owned by Crain Communications Inc., which also publishes CMO Close-Up.) I'm a big believer in online advertising, but when we surveyed the dealers and car manufacturers, we found they're still reading the print publications pretty religiously. CMO Close-Up: How does social media play in this scenario? Perkins: There is a complexity to social that doesn't exist with lots of other tactics. It's important to create a process that isn't just a free-for-all. For this, we have what we call a “Social Quarterback,” who is the gatekeeper for our content. We have a Facebook page that is primarily consumer-focused, with our Twitter feed a little more industry-focused. However, we just launched a pure-play Facebook page—DealerConnect from AutoTrader.com—so it's clearly differentiated from our consumer Facebook page. We see this as an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with our customers. Now, instead of just talking to them, they can ask questions and we can have a dialogue. We're very excited about it. CMO Close-Up: You have hundreds of salespeople who work in the field with auto dealers around the country. How is sales enablement handled at AutoTrader.com? Perkins: Before 2007 there was a big wall between sales and marketing here. Around that time we set up what we called a dealer marketing advisory board, bringing in 12 of our best salespeople to start working with us on how we go to market, what to deliver to the field, the format and message, etc. We realized from a marketing perspective that we'd be successful only if sales were successful, and that if we weren't supplying them with tools, we weren't doing our job. We continue the program to this day with different salespeople. It's considered a badge of honor to participate. An early observation was that we're now an online company, so why were we providing sales collateral on paper? So we developed a sales microsite that's entirely iPad-friendly, and we're rolling out iPads to our entire field force for them to present our products to the dealers differently and more dynamically. And we've created customized demos for the sales force to use, based on the individual needs of their customers. That was a significant undertaking, since we probably have several hundred product demonstrations. We built a demo for each one.
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