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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Edmunds.com: Content Company or Tech Platform?

August 24, 2015 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Can a content company be a tech company? Edmunds.com thinks so.

It is unlikely that most consumers today, steeped in the facility of web-based research, realize that Edmunds.com, Inc. debuted as a paperback newsstand publication in the 1960s. Even then, the company was focused on consolidating automotive specifications to help car shoppers make buying decisions. Thirty years later—after early forays into CD-ROM publishing—the company launched its website, Edmunds.com, embracing the promise of the web to deliver timely content.

Edmunds.com also understood the ways that web technology could be used to drive consumers all the way from consideration to a dealership near them. The trick, according to Edmunds.com President Seth Berkowitz was to develop relationships with all of the players in the value chain, and then figure out the best way to leverage technology to meet the needs of their core customers.

“We’re clear that our customers are U.S. consumers and those are the people we need to satisfy. But we realized early on that the only way to do that was by working with auto retailers and manufacturers.” The most obvious expression of this is in Edmunds.com ability to quickly ingest and display information about vehicles on the market. In order to support the endless need for the most up-to-date information, the company has continuously invested in developing tools that take automotive information—along with expert-created editorial content and buyer opinions—and deliver utility to consumers through tools like True Market Value (TMV), the TMV New Vehicle Calculator, and TMV Used Vehicle Appraiser.

This month, the company launched the Edmunds Express tool that helps dealers validate pricing with shoppers. Designed with direct input from dealers, it fits seamlessly into the sales process and helps them build trust with customers and close deals faster. This move might raise concerns that Edmunds has shifted its allegiances from the consumer to car dealers however Berkowitz says it simply fills a gap between customers’ online research and what they experienced once they got to dealerships. Rather than replacing online research, Berkowitz says Edmunds.com’s new microsites allow dealers to quickly access information on specific vehicles and look at them with customers, all under the halo of the Edumunds.com brand, which was ranked as one of the most trustworthy ratings sites online.

hack_2015_11Berkowitz believes that keeping a close eye on the overall car-buying experience and consumers’ evolving expectations, helps Edmunds.com continue to create tech-enabled experiences that serve their needs. At the same time, the company keeps a close eye on technological innovations to stay ahead of the curve perhaps most notably in their “Hackamotive,” an annual event launched three years ago that brings together teams of innovators and entrepreneurs in the technology, automotive, retail, and entertainment industries to compete for cash prizes for creatively re-imagining the future of car shopping.

And the Hackathon opportunity goes beyond a one-time payday: Last year, Edmunds.com launched its Fastlane Accelerator, a three month program where a small group of startups work have the opportunity to work closely with Edmunds.com, tapping into the company’s product development and technology resources. The companies, which are chosen from Hackathon winners, are also provided with mentorship to help them develop a successful strategy and avoid classic pitfalls.

This process has proved fruitful for the participants and Edmunds.com, which made its first-ever acquisition of an inaugural participant in the Fastlane Accelerator, Cardcode SMS, last October. Since then, 4,000 dealerships have signed on to use the mobile service, which allows car shoppers to engage in one-on-one text messaging with dealers. “Carcode is a win/win for both consumers and dealers because it lets them communicate in a mode and a manner people prefer,” said Berkowitz, noting that while the team at Edmunds.com recognized that texting was critical for consumer interaction, he doubts that “given our publisher roots and focus on features and pricing” that they would have developed a platform for it.

The Hackamotive and Fastlane Accelerator programs do more than expose the Edmunds.com team to new creative approaches to problems, they also expose inspire and entrepreneurial spirit across the organization.

Berkowitz says Edmunds.com has evolved over time, “from conceiving of ourselves as publishers to thinking of ourselves as a platform provider for better buying experiences.” And it appears to be working, given that the company is on pace to reach a record 20 million consumers this month. He recognizes that quality content “is the critical thing that people come for now because no amount of technology can replace the classic editorial and consumer opinions and real-world advice.” Edmunds.com believes that to deliver on what these consumers need, it must continue to invest in its technology platform to “harness the incredible power of that content.”

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