Alt-Weeklies Tap Auto Market

Selling dealers takes concerted effort

More alternative weeklies are reeling in new revenue by going after auto-dealer advertising, which is relatively untapped industry-wide.

In the process, they find themselves up against familiar barriers, including conservative attitudes about adult and personal ads, competition from the dailies, and lack of familiarity with the reach of alternative papers and the power of their demographics.

Some papers are wooing auto advertisers with dedicated sections and sales staff, while others put their whole sales teams against it with great success.

The San Diego Reader launched its auto advertising section early in December, using a four-person sales team and bundling liners, display and an online component. Advertising Manager Linda Flounders feels this approach is necessary for a hard-to-crack industry.

“The big difficulty is that they’re married to the dailies,” she says of auto dealers.

Using Media Audit figures, Flounders and her sales team have been able to show that more San Diegans read the Reader than the local Sunday paper, a key selling point for dealers.

Competing with the daily for advertising dollars is nothing new for the alternatives, but the auto dealer business presents special challenges.

Eric Reed, display sales manager at NUVO Newsweekly in Indianapolis, ran into more intensely conservative attitudes about alternative papers at the auto dealerships than with other advertisers.

When first approached, the dealers not only were convinced the weekly was unprofessional, they also didn’t want their advertising next to sex-related and adult-content ads, especially gay and lesbian material, he says.

Ironically that wasn’t a problem for John Saltas, publisher of the Salt Lake City Weekly in conservative Utah. Flounders also had no problem because the Reader doesn’t run adult or sex-related advertising.

The main problem, however, is the perception among auto dealers that advertising in alternatives is ineffective, an attitude based largely on inexperience, says Beth Douglas, advertising director for Philadelphia Weekly. She used the paper’s 17–20 pages of real estate each week, advertising homes up to $2 million, to show auto dealers that advertising in an alternative paper works.

“If people are using us to find real estate each week, why wouldn’t they use us to find cars?” Douglas asks.

Like Flounders in San Diego, NUVO’s Reed has dedicated an account executive to the dealerships and uses Media Audit data to prove the weekly’s viability. Both steps have shown dealers the weekly is serious about earning their advertising.

He also has placed the auto package at the front of the paper to steer auto advertising clear of adult ads. This package includes editorial components, such as an auto review and “news and notes,” with the display ads. In addition, he has built a bundled component that provides from five to 20 liner ads based on the size of the display. The liner ads are included in the price of the display ad. The number of liners included depends on the size of the display ad purchased.

“[Retail auto’s] an industry that nobody wants to jump in the water first,” Reed says. “But once somebody jumps in, they all want to test the water.”

Douglas, who launched Philadelphia Weekly’s auto section in November 1999, employs similar tactics, using a dedicated sales person with extensive experience and existing contacts in the market.

“That was especially important because dealers liked and trusted her and wanted to help her in a new venture,” Douglas says.

Salt Lake City Weekly also has a trusted, dedicated salesperson for the auto industry. The weekly, which had one car for sale in July, now has a six-page auto section that launched with two pages in mid-September. Two-and-a-half pages of the six are liners.

Saltas brought on a new salesperson to deal specifically with auto dealers. That one person focuses only on auto dealers and develops relationships that the dealers won’t likely find from the dailies, Saltas says.

“They like to know what’s going on,” Saltas says. His saleswoman serves not only as a salesperson but also swaps gossip and other information with the dealers in his market. As the relationship develops, the dealers learn to trust, value and respect the sales rep.

While Saltas can’t compete with some of the spifs the dailies offer, such as vacation trips, he does give them dinners, much better prices and that close relationship with one person.

Additionally, where Flounders and Reed package ads and offer an editorial component, Salt Lake City Weekly sponsors a morning drive time traffic report on the radio and uses it to promote the auto section.

“The drive time traffic sponsorships are simply there to direct listeners to our auto section,” Saltas says. “That also makes the dealers feel a bit better, knowing there’s actual advertising going on on our part.”

Proof again that auto dealers want more for their money than simply space.

Valley Advocate in Easthampton, Mass., bucks the trend of the dedicated sales department for automotive. When it began its auto advertising eight years ago – an old timer among alternatives with an auto section – it too had a dedicated sales person.

“What we found was that it worked best having the whole ad staff develop the section,” says Do-Han Allen, advertising director.

Allen believes it is preferable for multiple people to sell auto ads rather than “risk one person going down or going bad.”

“I can’t put my finger on specific figures, but what I can say is I have auto representation across the staff now. Each of my account execs handles auto accounts,” he says.

The arrangement also allows his sales reps to diversify. For example, several of his reps have gone from selling auto dealers into after-market car sales as well as selling ad space to banks for auto loan ads.

Like his peers in other parts of the country, Allen found automotive dealerships reluctant to be the first to advertise in the local alternative weekly.

“The dailies are institutionalized in the minds of the dealers,” he says.

However, after Valley Advocate sold one German-import dealer, it was able to expand to four or five other import dealerships. The paper now runs display ads for Kia, Volkswagen, Subaru, Toyota, Saturn and Hyundai.

NUVO also went after the import market, as have all the papers AAN News interviewed, because those manufacturers generally push their cars toward young professionals, who comprise the bulk of the weekly’s readership.

Now, even the “old school auto dealer” as Allen calls them – the GM and Ford dealers – are beginning to come around. By going after dealers who own both domestic and foreign lots, Valley Advocate has been able to bring on a few domestics.

“There’s a recognition that our readers have been ignored for a long time,” Allen says. “The [dealers] who are on top of their game are looking at all the markets.”

The bottom line is that auto dealers are opening up to the alternative weekly market, but as the experience of several papers seems to prove, dealers want familiar relationships, more bang for their buck and sometimes to steer clear of the adult and sex ads that are standard fare in many alt-weeklies.

Seth Wharton is a freelance business writer living in New York City.