They call it the virtual test drive, an online application that lets consumers watch ride-along and other video (complete with magazine editors' commentary) with options to toggle among different segments focusing on interior and exterior features. Advertisers have to pay to get their brands' reviews turned into virtual test drives, and already Chevrolet has done so for its 2007 Silverado, as has Ford for its 2007 Edge.
Price tags obscured
The virtual drives are sold as part of larger packages to advertisers that already do significant business with Car and Driver and Road & Track, published by Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., which obscures the test drives' actual "price tag." However, Hachette executives estimate that clients fork out about $250,000 to cover production and media costs for each drive's 12-month duration.
Many magazines have seen car ads decline sharply in recent months. From last January through November, for example, auto ad pages sank 13.6% from the equivalent period a year earlier, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
So Car and Driver and Road & Track are not alone in trying to deliver new options to automakers as media consumption and buying behavior change. Primedia's Motor Trend relaunched its website last Thursday with features including virtual road tests -- a different execution on a similar theme. And AutoWeek (which, like Advertising Age, is part of Crain Communications) has just taken its weekly e-mail to a daily product, with website restructuring in the works for this quarter.
New efforts are needed
Magazine publishers have to make these efforts, a media buyer said. "They're concerned that advertisers are concerned about effectiveness in a one-dimensional medium," said Eric Blankfein, senior VP-channel insights director, Horizon Media. "It's a defensive move, but it's smart because they're following purchase patterns and readership. They're adapting to how people are shopping."
The virtual drive complements an existing media plan, said John Roth, advertising manager, Chevy Trucks. "We know through our experience over the last couple years as web traffic has increased -- especially to places like Chevy.com and hits coming through the Silverado landing page -- that our pickup-truck owners are looking for information, are digitally savvy, and want to spend time online looking at a vehicle and researching all the qualities of the truck," he said.
At Ford Motor Co., the recent introduction of the Edge marked the company's biggest digital push yet. Virtual test drives appeal because "it adds credibility," said Jeri B. Ward, Ford Edge marketing manager. "Instead of me telling someone these facts, it's coming from an automotive-enthusiast magazine."
Editorial, marketing divide
Will church/state watchdogs cry foul? Hachette's virtual test drives won't contradict anything that's written by the review staff, said Robert Ames, VP-digital marketing director of men's titles. "If the editorial staff has said that the vehicle is overweight, we'll never say it's light," he said. "We'll focus on other aspects of the vehicle on behalf of the consumer."
The virtual test drives took more than a year to develop as part of the company's seven-figure digital push, said Nick Matarazzo, exec VP-group publishing director at Hachette's Men's Enthusiast Network. He guessed the test drives would break even within two years if they had their own profit-and-loss statement. His goal is to sell 10 virtual test drives this year and about 40 in 2008.
"If I had my druthers, I would love to see a video version of every test result that we do," Mr. Matarazzo said. "That's really unrealistic and probably cost-prohibitive. Nonetheless, that's the endgame."
In the meantime, Hachette sees opportunities to involve other magazines in its fold. "If a vehicle comes out with a target of an upwardly mobile woman, Elle magazine could direct readers to its virtual test drive," Mr. Matarazzo said.
Estimates of the car magazines' web audiences vary. Hachette said CarandDriver.com gets an average of 1.5 million unique monthly visitors and RoadandTrack.com gets 400,000. Nielsen/NetRatings said CarandDriver.com had 654,000 unique monthly visitors in November and RoadandTrack.com had 359,000.
In print, Road & Track reported average paid and verified circulation of 720,644 for the first half of 2006, while Car and Driver posted 1.3 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.