R/GA Chicago, mimics dating-site marketing. Ads show people lusting after cars, SUVs and trucks. Cars.com is “where a labradoodle owner can meet their next hybrid,” one TV spot states as it shows a woman walking her two dogs and fawning over a compact car pulling around the corner. An ad tailored for social media plugs the site as “where a nudist can meet their topless,” atop a picture of a convertible and a man enjoying the clothes-free life (have no fear, it only shows his face). The brand even struck an ad deal with Tinder, in which users are shown profiles of cars. If they swipe right on one of them, they will be served a message in their inbox.
The marketing is meant to showcase Cars.com’s new site navigation that uses a machine-learning powered algorithm to make car recommendations based on lifestyle preferences. It is inspired by retailing startups from other categories, like Stitch Fix, which guides user through a “style quiz” that produces curated fashion options.
“We’ve seen the retail ecosystem shift [but] automotive has not caught up,” says Brooke Skinner Ricketts, Cars.com’s chief marketing officer. “Most people tell us they’d rather clean toilets, go to the DMV…or go to jury duty than shop for a car.”
Cars.com used to start by asking buyers to select the vehicle make/model or body style they want—and that option is still available. But the revised site has another option that begins with a quiz. Users are guided through a series of questions, such as if they are looking for a “family taxi,” “daily commuter,” “fun and play companion” or “workhorse.” Preferences are further narrowed with queries about what people value most, like smartphone connectivity or luxury, as well as what they want to spend and where they live. Then users are presented with a series of vehicles and asked to “like” the ones they prefer.
The search engine uses that data to display a final page of vehicle picks. But if you “liked” only Hondas, the results are not limited to Hondas. Instead, the algorithm uses historical purchase data culled from Cars.com’s 20-year archive to predict what other models might be suitable based on the user’s criteria, as well as the shopping patterns of previous users. The algorithm shows vehicles “that are a match for what you’ve said you really need, your lifestyle, but you may not have ever thought of,” says Tony Zolla, Cars.com’s chief product officer.
Unlike Stitch Fix, where users can complete a purchase online, Cars.com’s search engine ends with referring the user to a dealer whom they can contact to inquire about the car (while simultaneously agreeing to be contacted by the seller). Cars.com makes money by charging dealerships to list their vehicles on the site, similar to other online automotive marketplaces. Cars.com says it has roughly 20,000 dealer customers out of the roughly 40,000 automotive dealers in the U.S.
The company began testing the revised site a couple months ago with a segment of its users. The new design led to an 87 percent jump in return visitors, according to Cars.com.
That is a key metric considering the rising level of competition in the online auto marketplace industry, and the fact that most buyers shop across multiple sites. The surge in new players has been driven by robust car-buying demand (which has begun to slow), as well as the rising popularity of online shopping that has hit nearly every sector of the economy.
The online auto marketplace race “has been very significantly shaken up in the past couple years,” says Peter M. Zollman, a consultant with AIM Group, which covers the classified advertising business, including the online auto marketplace industry. Historically, “AutoTrader was a strong No. 1 and Cars.com was a strong No. 2 and that was about it,” he says. But with the emergence of CarGurus, TrueCar and a smattering of smaller players, “it’s become a free for all.”
Cars.com’s monthly unique visitor count reached 25.6 million in June, marking its highest monthly total of the year, according to ComScore. Uniques in June 2017 totaled 11.3 million. CarGurus.com drew 25.6 million unqiues in June 2018, up from 15.6 million a year earlier.