Does the information superhighway have enough room for another big auto website?
Karl Brauer thinks so.
He and three partners launched Total Car Score earlier this year inspired by the ironic notion that car buyers, confused by the sheer number of sites, needed one more to make sense of it all.
Brauer calls his West L.A. company the “Rotten Tomatoes for cars,” referring to the movie site that aggregates reviews and gives either a “fresh” or “rotten” recommendation for films. The idea is to provide a single number that represents an authoritative consensus about a particular model.
“There are plenty of car sites – too many if you ask me,” said Brauer, a former editor at rival Edmunds.com Inc. “There is far too much information for people to search from scratch. We put it in bite-sized pieces that are digestible.”
Total Car Score is fundamentally based on a math formula that reduces a collection of vehicle ratings to one number.
The formula begins with publicly available ratings from Edmunds; MSN Auto; Consumer Guide; and U.S. News & World Report, which also provides aggregated scores; and similar sources. Then it adds government and insurance industry safety ratings. Finally, it has a fuel economy rating. The formula yields a rating on a scale from one to 100, with most models in the 60-to-90 range.
Since Total Car Score launched in March, the website audience has grown an average of 62 percent a month, according to the company. It currently has about 100,000 monthly visitors, but still faces the challenge of making money. That’s something Brauer hopes to achieve with a combination of advertising dollars from car manufacturers and selling contact information of site visitors to local auto dealers.
It’s a crowded race for both car-buyer eyeballs and advertising dollars. Competition includes Edmunds and TrueCar, both in Santa Monica, as well as J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village. Nationally, Yahoo Inc.’s auto page, Cars.com, AutoTrader.com and Kelley Blue Book Co. Inc. vie for the same audience and advertisers.
But there is also an expanding pie of advertising dollars. Borrell Associates, a Williamsburg, Va., research firm, projected in an April report that online auto advertising will grow 39 percent this year to $11.9 billion – and continue growing indefinitely.
Jimmy Vee, a principal of Orlando, Fla., auto consultancy Rich Dealers, said the main impetus behind these sites is the growth of marketing dollars from auto makers and dealers.
“These sites are not built for consumers but for companies that know how to access the money flowing in the industry,” he said. “I find it funny that the reason for another site is there are already too many sites.”
Brauer was working as editor-in-chief at Edmunds a few years ago when he first considered starting his own site. He came across an article about aggregated scoring of product ratings, and decided to develop one for the auto industry.
“The idea just popped into my head,” he said.
He left Edmunds last year, and with his three partners self-funded the company and worked on the formula for Total Car Score, which now has eight employees.
Brauer designed the site based on the idea that car buyers quickly look over a large number of cars and then conduct deep research on only a few models.
Total Car Sore’s aggregate rating helps with the first part of the search, while the content on the site covers the second. The site features exclusive road tests, links to car reviews at auto magazines, photos, specifications and even owner’s manuals.
Three weeks ago, Total Car Score began selling advertising on its site to car manufacturers, based on the strategy of first offering ads on a page about a particular model to the maker of that car. If that manufacturer decides not to buy, then the site opens the space to manufacturers of competing models. Brauer said several manufacturers are running test ads on the website, but declined to name them.
Vee at Rich Dealers said that auto manufacturers are willing to spend a nearly limitless amount of money to retain prospective buyers, and he believes Total Car Score will have little trouble selling its ad space.
“Even if their car is rated low, manufacturers won’t care one bit. They will give you money if you’ve got eyeballs,” he said.
Total Car Score hopes the other revenue stream will come from auto dealers.
While site visitors can get the aggregate score and browse a lot of information on the Total Car Score site with ease, to receive the specific price of a car at a local dealer they must provide contact information. The site plans to sell that information to dealers, charging between $10 and $40 depending on the strength of the lead and other factors.
“Lead generation is crack for car dealers,” Vee said. “They can never get enough. Their lifeblood is new customers.”
Vee noted that car sales have increased substantially as the economy has improved, and with so many people looking for cars, it’s easy for a relatively small site like Total Car Score to increase traffic. However, he believes that for the site to succeed long term it will require substantial capital.
“To be a player like TrueCar requires national advertising,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m not sure Total Car Score has the capital to play in this game.”
Brauer said the company expects to reach break-even in a little more than a year and is looking for investors to bankroll expansion.
“We will consider all funding sources, but would prefer an angel with a longtime horizon,” he said. “We didn’t build this company for a three-year flip.”
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