Category Archives: Verticals

Priceline Moves Upscale via $2.6 Billion OpenTable Acquisition

Priceline is sort of like eBay – a company known for its origins in auctions, but more recently focusing on distinct, “buy it now” niches. It has recently fleshed out its core travel brand by moving up the value chain to travel reservations via its acquisition of Kayak. It has also gotten into the “sharing economy” by adding AirBnB-like private listings to its Booking.com brand, which is an international powerhouse.

Today, Priceline added restaurant reservations and search to its stable via the $2.6 Billion purchase of industry leader OpenTable, which works with 31,000 restaurants – mostly high end white table cloth restaurants willing to pay a hefty premium for reservations management and leads to undecided consumers. Open Table is an international leader with strong customer bases in the U.S., U.K.,, Germany, Japan and Mexico.

For Priceline, the most attractive parts of the deal are probably OpenTable’s 15 million, high end, travel-oriented customers; the company’s verified, high quality restaurant reviews; OpenTable’s strong mobile orientation; and its extensive affiliate network with 600+ local and vertical sites, which receive commissions for sending traffic to OpenTable (and accounting for 5-10 percent of OpenTable’s business.) These networks might be extended to include other Priceline properties.

There is probably some disconnect with OpenTable’s high-end customer base and Priceline’s discount set – most OpenTable customers won’t be using Priceline itself. And an effort to extend OpenTable’s feature set with Groupon-like deals proved to be underwhelming (although the company has maintained an extensive and apparently successful “Dining Checques” loyalty program). Many OpenTable customers are also not using the service in travel mode — they are local.

Still, OpenTable customers might use the other services. And the seamless Priceline app experience could also be applied as mobile becomes a paramount factor for all travel services.

A larger question we’d have is the core of OpenTable’s value proposition for restaurants: the reservations management system, which is based on dedicated customer premise equipment (known as The Electronic Reservations Book.) The average ERB using restaurant pays $249 for the service (plus $1.00 per seated diner using the OpenTable system.) But in the age of tablet-based POS and reservations services using WiFI, OpenTable’s proprietary system would seem threatened.

So far, it has held its own against such tablet-oriented companies as UrbanSpoon’s Rez and Groupon‘s Breadcrumb – OpenTable’s base of customers is too strong to quickly turn off. OpenTable itself is preparing for a transition. Yet, it has been developing a Cloud Based program that charge a $2.49 per diner charge.

Structurally, we also ask ourselves whether OpenTable is in a distinct “high end restaurant reservations silo,” where it now sits; or whether it is really part of a developing “food silo” that is based on search and discovery, would also include reviews; restaurant and fastfood delivery (i.e. GrubHub), grocery delivery (Amazon Fresh, Google) and reviews (Yelp.) Priceline might be positioning itself to be in the right of the middle of these conjoining elements. (then again….the new silo might ultimately be oriented more around delivery).

ReachLocal Automotive Scores with Scion Dealers

We’ve been tracking the transition of automotive marketing to digital for ten years or more, but have just recently seen major pickup at local dealers. There has been a definite lag at the dealer level compared to the car manufacturers.

Most local dealer efforts have relied on third party subscriptions with AutoTrader.com, Cars.com and others to successfully showcase inventory, along with search packages with Google and other search providers. But many dealers still rely heavily on traditional media to acquire new customers.

ReachLocal, which has made a concerted effort to target key verticals with its integrated marketing efforts, including health care, legal and pro services. It clearly sees a rich opportunity among dealers, which are among the heaviest local advertisers.

A 1 1/2 year pilot with 52 northern California Scion dealers has scored especially well. The Scion effort, highlighted in a ReachLocal corporate case study, especially made sense since Toyota’s entry-level brand is skewed towards online- savvy younger shoppers.

ReachLocal Director of Automotive Scott Lucas and Scion Brand Manager Mary Pham, in a recent discussion with BIA/Kelsey, told us that that the Reach campaign for Scion allowed the individual Scion dealers to get on a level playing field with Toyota, which supports its branded dealers with massive national advertising campaigns.

The effort focused on lead generation and display, and went far beyond a typical search campaign. Site targeting, search retargeting, couponing, test drive scheduling and other activities related to search were all incorporated into the campaign. “Through that coverage, we’ve created more leaders and dealer analytics,” said Lucas. All of it complemented national and regional messages that Scion has been promoting.

Scion, for its part, has deemed the pilot a success and is now expanding digital spending at both the dealer level and for regional coops. The Northen California dealers are now spending 80 percent of their marketing on digital, said Pham.

Pham noted that Scion, via Toyota’s digital consultants, knew it wanted to develop a major digital effort, and had also looked at Haystak before settling on Reach’s program (this was prior to Haystak’s acquisition by AutoTrader in May 2013.) The results are now in. “We’ve seen an increase in car sales,” said Pham. Perhaps more critically, “we’ve seen a shift in the way the dealers are thinking.”

This is the first in a series of posts where we’ll be highlighting successes in National Local, which is the theme of our “Leading in Local: The National Impact” event in Atlanta May 7-9. Register now for early rates.

Digital First ‘Complements’ Cars.com with Tracking, Other Services

What does a newspaper company do when it loses its affiliation with a major vertical brand? That was the question for The San Jose Mercury News and some of the other Digital First Media papers on New Years Day, when the company’s partnership with Cars.com ended.

The Digital First newspapers knew that most car dealers wouldn’t want to abandon an existing relationship with a partner like Cars.com, a major source of leads and online presence. The answer? Change the value proposition that local car dealers had with the newspaper. For instance, it could complement the Cars.com relationship by developing a service agency-like model. Specifically,it could track where the dealers’ leads came from, and provide actionable information about these active car shoppers.

To this end, Digital First signed up with Cupertino-based TapClassifieds, and its growing, 15 person TapClassifieds Auto division. As part of its program, TapClassifieds evaluates websites, landing pages, text emails and credit applications as they come in. It also clean ups a dealer’s inventory to make landing pages more aesthetic, and to track results.

Tracking dealer results from Craig’s List – a major channel for dealer visibility and source of leads — has proved especially important. The site switched to a premium classifieds model Dec. 3, killing a dealer’s ability to “spam” the site –along with a dealer’s rivals. Consequently, dealers needed to review their efforts on Craig’s List, and pursue alternatives.

Another major task for TapClassifieds: make sure that listings on sites like Craig’s List and eBay Motors are compliant with their regulations. They must remain compliant with the site’s terms of use or see their accounts shuttered without warning or recourse.

“It’s a far cry from the old days, when people would just want to see inventory,” said TapClassifieds COO Jeff Herr, a longtime digital newspaper vet who left MediaNews Group two years ago to join the startup. “There are many, many tasks that you need to do to support the dealer. We are a service bureau.” Pricing for the service runs $15 per month per car, adds Herr.

Digital First has been testing the model with Bay Area auto dealers, and it has now announced a strategic partnership to take the program across all of its markets. DFM properties in Philadelphia, Connecticut, Texas and New Mexico are already up and running.

For TapClassifieds, Herr says that autos are the tip of the iceberg. RV Dealers, real estate and vacation rentals will each launch soon. “Real estate is unplowed Earth,” he notes.

Local’s New Year: Some Thoughts and Predictions

Over the years, we’ve seen some major paradigm shifts in the transition of local marketing to digital. In 2003, it was the rise of Google search as applied to small business –to this day, the biggest thing that ever happened to local. In 2007, the paradigm shift was the rise of Groupon and prepaid deals as a way to drive customer acquisition. This opened the door for all kinds of non-advertising marketing, from Facebook and Twitter to Card Linked Offers.

Right now, mobile is THE paradigm shift – both as a media channel, and as a geolocation device (Mobile hasn’t been a factor yet as an ewallet. But that is sure to come, with a whole new set of implications.)

Nothing happens in 12 month cycles, but this is what I see happening in 2014:

Hyperlocal Fails to Win Destination Status, Gets a Better Life as Feature
Hyperlocal seems so compelling; contextual content that can draw users who can be microtargeted on a block by block basis. But on a super hyper local basis, it hasn’t scaled as a business model or as a compelling destination site. AOL’s Patch is reported to be winding up as an independent entity, and National Local hybrids such as Examiner.com haven’t made an impact either. The one remaining super hyperlocal site is Next Door Networks, which has raised a $100 Million war chest. The site is based on user generated content and local cells of 30+ users. It is a much cheaper model than Patch’s local staff. But will it win sustained participation from users? My bet is that it won’t. But does that mean that hyperlocal is dead? In fact, hyperlocal is everywhere – in reviews, posts, articles, maps and enhanced listings. Its use is sure to grow.

The Sharing Economy Spawns Multiple Vertical Sites
One of the big local breakthroughs has been the development of shared listing sites for apartments (Airbnb), vacation rentals (BRBO) and rides (Uber). In 2014, we expect to see shared listings become more ubiquitous, with multiple entries per verticals, and the addition of many more verticals. We also expect to see an entire ecosystem grow around these sites. As AirBnB’s Joe Zadeh noted at Interactive Local Media in San Francisco, solutions are being added based on need. For instance, Airbnb has developed a freelance photographer program because hosts need good pictures of their apartments.

Social’s Impact In Local Is Too Fragmented, But Dedicated Word of Mouth Sites Make a Dent
Social leaders like Facebook and Google+ have tremendous volume at the local level. Facebook, alone, has over one million SMB advertisers. But its local usage is so fragmented that local can’t be a real focus at the vertical level. Review-based sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List get closer to the mark, and have broadened their reach beyond restaurants and service professionals, respectively. But they leave plenty of room for smaller Word of Mouth sites that can specialize in certain sectors (i.e. Plumbers) and really dig in. Look for some of the industry’s most innovative leaders try to break through with new models in 2014, including Justin Sanger with SupportLocal; Gib Olander with Local Viewpoints; and Matthew Berk with Lucky Oyster.

‘Big Data’ and Non-Advertising Marketing Boost Local Leads
The ability to base marketing on user engagement and behavior is a fantastic opportunity. Big data, specifically, mixes and matches various data bases to determine the likelihood of engagement. It has been successfully applied to support advertising campaigns. But can users be targeted as a substitute for advertising budgets? And looking forward, can transaction activity, store inventories and user location be wedded to search behavior as part of e big data? This is a greenfield opportunity in all respects. What we are looking for is the transformation of retail email and social lists to leads and promotions. Look for big data players such as Radius Intelligence, Retailigence, xAd, Urban Mapping and LocalBlox to showcase new opportunities in leads and geotargeting.

The Hunger for ‘Attribution’ Drives Big Data and Transaction Marketing
One of the biggest problems for local marketers is proving attribution – especially as users effortlessly move from a banquet of “spreadable media” – everything from articles to email to social media posts to YouTube. It is another reason we are keen on transactional media and loyalty media – the receipts say it all. Look for the gatekeepers of transaction media and loyalty marketing–everyone from Living Social to First Data, Bank of America, MasterCard, Amex , Google Wallet, PayPal and Square – to edge their way into consumer marketing.

Online Shopping Goes Local via Delivery
Interactive Local Media has largely been defined by tech factors, such as geofencing . But the growing use of online by commerce giants such as WalMart, The Home Depot, Amazon and eBay; their development of regional warehouses and delivery networks; and use of Facebook Connect-like one stop shopping suggests a new front in the war for local commerce. The imposition of local sales taxes also suggests a level playing field with local businesses. eBay’s purchase in 2013 of the Shutl courier service, and its expansion to multiple markets, really showed where this might lead.

Happy New Year everyone, and thanks for reading and being part of the local community.

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Craigslist Adds More Premium Fees; $5 for Auto Dealer Ads

Craigslist is going to begin charging used car dealers $5 for 30 day placements, beginning December 3. The new fee is the latest stage in the slow evolution of Craigslist to a partially premium site that still offers free services to individuals while charging lower-than-market rates to commercial enterprises.

The classifieds leader, which serves 486 U.S. markets and 214 overseas markets, imposed $5 fees on event tickets last year. It previously imposed $10 fees on “therapeutic” ads for sex workers and others; $10 fees for apartment listers in New York; and in some markets, $25 for recruitment ads (but $75 in San Francisco). Most of Craigslist revenues are earned in its top 28 markets – it remains a steadfastly urban site — and the vast majority of its revenue comes from the recruitment ads.

According to tallies by AIM Group, Craigslist currently has 3.9 million auto ads in its top 28 markets. Some of its markets (i.e. Dallas, Miami, Houston, Seattle and Phoenix) are clearly more car-centric than others .

The AIM Group suggests that just 10-15 percent of the sites used car ads might be dealer ads. Based on that estimate, we’d calculate that such ads might bring $1.95 million to $2.925 million per month, or roughly $23.4 million to $35.1 million per year. Smaller markets might bring in another 5 percent .

In our view, the imposition of dealer fees for used cars are mostly a good thing. They will likely end the surfeit of “fake” car ads designed to get consumers to the dealer. They’ll also make the ads easier to manage, as dealers currently post (and repost) ads in an effort to stay on top of the listings with high volumes of ads.

The repostings have hurt Craigslist efficiency, as the same Honda Accord EX 2013 would come up multiple times in user searchers. The imposition of apartment fees in New York similarly were something of a public service for all involved.

The downside for auto dealers is they still need to do a credit card payment for each listing, car by car. Industry analysts, however, suggest that Craigslist might be developing a bulk signup program.

One question we have is whether the auto fees precede a similar program for real estate. Craig’s List has been aggressively blocking both auto and real estate hyperlinking to prevent third party sites from piggybacking its content.

Another question we have is the competitive threat posed by Craigslist to car sites and other vertical sites. We have seen a growing use of Craigslist by various vertical players (apartment managers etc.) . We believe that the auto community is less vulnerable than other verticals, however, given the sophisticated search, tech and content features provided by leading auto sites.

Facebook/Google Vertical Wars: Facebook Recruits a Google Auto Exec

Facebook isn’t obvious as a major competitor for auto advertising. But Google certainly watches Facebook’s every move in autos, as it worries that advertising that might have otherwise gone to its services is being cannibalized by social media.

Is it paranoid? We don’t think so. The car makers are definitely focused on digital spending, but social media represents a real alternative to Google’s assortment of search, video and display. Facebook represents 65 percent of all social media conversations about autos, per JD Power.

Earlier this year, Facebook added the capability for auto marketers to target shoppers based on car makes and models and their online purchase histories. And yesterday, Facebook grabbed Google’s Detroit-based Auto Industry Director Michelle Morris, a seven-year Google vet, to help lead auto sales. Morris is expected to engage current Facebook clients, including Hyundai, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford, Chrysler,GM , Toyota and Subaru while also developing new relationships.

“With Facebook’s offerings, automotive marketers can build and strengthen brand opinion, consideration and loyalty while maximizing efficiencies at every level of the purchase funnel,” noted a Facebook press release.

Recent ComScore data shows that social media automotive spending is up 130 percent, and that 14 percent of all online auto ad spending is now spent online. Nissan outpaces the rest of the industry by spending 20 percent of its online spending on social media. Most of the social spending is geared around boosting engagement, influence and credibility, and includes a mix of auto forums and “mass” social media.

At Interactive Local Media in San Francisco Dec. 10-12, we have great keynotes from Facebook VP of Product Marketing Brian Boland and Google Director of Global Mobile Solutions Brendon Kraham. You can register here.

JD Power Auto Roundtable: Digital Auto Ecosystem Shifts

With the majority of U.S. auto buyers now using online and mobile in their research, the auto sites are clarifying their individual roles in the auto ecosystem – and making adjustments where necessary.

This week, a panel of car site leaders at the JD Power Auto Roundtable in Las Vegas – including Cars.com, Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book and TrueCar.com — suggested there were two extremes among them. On one side, you have the national verticals that are the successors to the classifieds industry and provide rich information about cars and the buying journey, lead by AutoTrader.com and Cars.com. On the other side, you have sites focused more on providing price estimates for autos, such as Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book and TrueCar.com.

Finding a balance between pricing and dealer engagement has been the industry’s challenge.

“Price, while important, is not the sole principal,” said Cars.com SVP Alex Vetter. Most people want to know who to buy from and the quality of the service department. Taking care of customers post sale means a lot to them and they will pay more than the lowest price.

Indeed, a focus on price is seen as a “race to the bottom. “As marketers, we are touting unique value propositions, product quality and things we want to promote.” Vetter notes that Cars.com’s deep editorial content, and growing mobile channel, provides context and relevance for the site’s network of 20,000 dealers.

Edmunds.com President and COO Seth Berkowitz , however, suggested that the presentation of price really is important – so long as it is provided in a rich context. By providing price points that have been paid by other customers, along with price quotes by the dealers, better trust is fostered with consumers. When dealers make promises and keep them, we’ve seen a 10% bump in satisfaction ratings, said Berkowitz – an important boost, as dealer profits are often made less from sales as loyalty efforts such as car trade ins and service.

Berkowitz said that the site now works with 6,000 dealers and is becoming more dealer-centric, rather than relying so much on advertising from the manufacturers. The site’s revenue split is currently 60 percent advertising, 40 percent dealers. By next year, it should be 50/50.

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