Newspaper companies have gone about trying to protect the automotive vertical all wrong. We have tried to compete head-on with the other sites focused on the rare job of buying a car (I did that job last summer for the first time in more than five years and don’t expect to do it again for several more years). If your value in the cars vertical is something the consumer rarely sees, your competition is not based on a steady relationship but on ability to attract attention. You are just clamoring for attention along with Autotrader, Cars.com, craigslist, eBay and all the other places selling cars. And let’s be honest: Lots of young people buy cars and they aren’t buying newspapers and we aren’t winning the battle to become the online destination for car buyers.
Instead, the Complete Community Connection should focus on the daily and weekly jobs that can help drivers and car owners regularly over time. We need to develop a place where drivers in our community want to check in before (or during) their daily commute, each time they drive to a Hawkeye game, during inclement weather and every time they fill up their gas tank.
We already have a valuable map of gas prices and offer text alerts on traffic but we need to do more. When the city installs red-light cameras, we need to aggregate those feeds, so people can check traffic and road conditions at any time throughout the city. Other driving-related answerbases establishing us as a one-stop place for all jobs related to owning or driving a car: gas pump inspections, bridge inspections, parking offenders, vanity license plates, parking meter citations.
We’re not a huge, congested metro area where traffic is a nightmare, but I heard Gazette Publisher Dave Storey complaining about the traffic on his daily commute just in the past week. Washingtonpost.com, Eastvalleytribune.com, MercuryNews.com, PalmBeachPost.com and Boston.com provide their communities with real-time traffic maps, showing locations of accidents and construction projects. You can turn on state traffic cameras and see what the traffic looks like right now.
We need to help drivers connect at our driving vertical with discussion forums, sharing photos of souped-up cars, contests and advice. We need to invite drivers to swap stories on topics such as winter driving, first cars, teaching teens to drive and so on. Like the Bakersfield Californian, we can develop a map where users enter locations of bad potholes, both warning the public and automatically emailing the city. During a big snowstorm, we can ask users to enter the time when plows reach their streets (this could provide a strong front-page story for The Gazette and a lead story on KCRG’s newscast).
Driving is an area where we can call on the community to provide much of our content. We can develop a map where drivers vote on the slowest or most dangerous intersections (we could start by mapping where accidents occur) or call attention to the roads most in need of repair and invite motorists to vent their complaints about them.
Once you start identifying the jobs and questions and providing solutions and answers, you will provide the place for drivers to turn every day. (This site would be a great place for drivers to buy their insurance online after comparing rates from different companies.)
We need to present the auto-services portion of the iGuide here. We’ll provide a place where you can enter your need for urgent service (using your phone, because many times this need arises from the road) and quickly get email, text or telephone responses from repair services who can get you in that day. We’ll be the place that you compare and buy insurance and accessories. In some cases, we may have an opportunity to provide a service where none exists. In others, we will provide an essential place to do business for those who already provide such services.
Of course, services related to buying and selling cars will be part of this information channel as well, ranging from ads to reviews to financing to product information. This has always been the heart of our automotive vertical and it left us more vulnerable to disruption. Buying a car is a big enough purchase that it doesn’t have to be a local transaction and that local sellers have a huge incentive to work through national sales vehicles. But driving and owning a car are deeply based in the community and present an extraordinary opportunity for a creative, visionary C3 organization. If we create a place where Eastern Iowans come routinely as drivers and car owners, that will be the first place they come when looking to buy a new car (and the first place dealers and private sellers will turn to advertise when selling). We will not only protect and regain our business in auto classifieds, but we may have a chance to attract revenue (in particular from video, mobile and local search) from repair shops, insurance agencies and companies, tire stores and other businesses that may not advertise much in newspapers.
An effective content channel focused on driving would serve a variety of products. Of course, a driving site (and possibly a print product drawing from the content) could be niche products, providing the place to do all the jobs for drivers. But that content will feed several, if not all, of the company’s products. The content on traffic could be a staple of KCRG’s morning show. A weekly column in The Gazette might draw on a variety of information, reporting on progress of construction projects and fluctuation of gas prices and highlighting a pothole of the week chosen by the community. And, of course, the auto classifieds will remain important parts of The Gazette and GazetteOnline, serving the people who still look for cars there and gaining new momentum as sellers do more business with the vertical that serves drivers’ everyday needs. Iowa.com could have a whole driving section that would include all of this content, as well as aggregating driving-related content from other sources. A Hawkeye site might draw from the driving site for game-day traffic and parking information. (I won’t run through the product possibilities in each section of this blueprint, but product managers and product planners should think through the possibilities in this way for each content area.)