Building a Consumer Brand, For (Nearly) Free

Three years ago when we were just starting TrueCar, one of the biggest challenges we faced once the beta version of the product was built was how would we generate consumer awareness, credibility and ultimately drive traffic to the website?  It’s the challenge any consumer-facing web property has to overcome – inexpensive customer acquisition – unless you are one of the lucky few (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) that has an exponential viral coefficient.

And it’s not just about driving traffic to your website, but also converting that traffic to do what you want them to do – buy something, view something, tell their friends, etc.  Building credibility into the brand is critical to not only attracting who you want to your property, but converting them to action.

During our first few years, we spent no money on advertising and yet had become the #1 share-of-media over our top two competitors combined, were receiving over 1,200 monthly media mentions, were performing nearly 100 monthly media interviews and had been featured multiple times in publications and web properties such as Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Automotive News, CNN, Consumer Reports, NY Times, USA Today and others.  We grew our web traffic from zero to nearly 1M UV’s with no advertising spend.  For more content around our media attention, click here.

So how did we generate brand awareness, credibility and consumer traffic to TrueCar in the early days where cash was scarce?  Initially, it was through a comprehensive industry and consumer public relations effort until we had a credible reputation and the ability to convert and monetize traffic, then we migrated to a paid marketing strategy once we could guarantee a positive ROI.  It’s the first, initial effort of public relations to develop credibility and awareness that I’d like to address in this post.  Why PR first before advertising?  2 primary reasons:  Credibility and Cost.

Credibility.  Advertising by its nature is about self-promotion.  It’s a pitch no matter how you slice it.  Effective media coverage through PR however is about positioning your company as the expert in its field so that the media “filterers” (journalists, editors) are the one’s communicating directly to their readership.  There’s a level of separation that makes the company’s message more credible.

Cost.  Advertising is expensive.  Just ask General Motors who spends in excess of $2B per year on advertising.  A well-executed PR program’s most significant costs are the people that execute the strategy.  There is no comparison between the two on cost alone.

With that as the backdrop, what did we do at TrueCar to develop and execute a successful and low cost PR capability?

1. Determine What Credibility Means in the Context of the Brand Strategy.  For us, it was convincing the auto industry, through data analytics and unique insights, that TrueCar was the “go to” company for what’s happening in Auto for all things pricing.  Tough to do in a world where 80-year old brands have a foothold already in pricing.

2. Formulate a PR strategy that Focuses on Attaining this Credibility.  Our industry strategy for TrueCar was to become the most transparent, trusted and credible source of auto pricing data and auto industry trends, so we targeted publications, social media and influencers in the industry where the topic of vehicle pricing was at the forefront.  And, our consumer strategy was closely aligned on transparency, accuracy and (hopefully) boosted by the industry credibility that we were after.

3. Find the single most influential, credible industry analyst or personality and hire them.  This is the most important takeaway and I don’t know why more startups don’t persist here, especially in cases where industry credibility is correlated to successfully penetrating the consumer market, as is the case with Automotive.  There’s a fallacy that this person, given their stature, is “out of reach” or too expensive to engage.  While that might be true for some, you’d be surprised how energizing it can be for someone who has “done it all” in their industry to have the opportunity to do it again, to leverage their skills and relationships to have a massive impact on a new and emerging brand.   We wanted to first build our Industry credibility, then expand into our consumer strategy, so that’s where we started.  The right candidates have deep media relationships, are performing high volumes of media interviews, have an online social media presence and are viewed as credible industry ambassadors, not spin doctors.  Those folks are out there for every industry, and we hired the best in Automotive.  Jesse Toprak has been the leading Automotive Analyst for 15 years and has performed over 10,000 media interviews during that period.  He was on auto-pilot at his previous role, and was motivated by the challenge of starting from scratch to build our brand around credibility.  No shortage of risk for him personally, but the aspirational fit was there for both of us.

4. Rally the organization around the PR strategy and commit people resources.  Executing a successful PR strategy, one that will be compelling to your target media, requires unique insights that others in the industry are not providing.  That requires lots of data, analysis and product and technology support.  Additionally, because your PR team is externally facing and presumably are experts on trends, they can be important in actually driving product strategy and features.  All of this requires a commitment across the organization to dedicate resources to enable PR – online, offline, social media, daily blogging, outreach, interviews – the list goes on.  Let me be clear, this is hard to do during the early stages where seemingly every person in the company is over-worked and focused exclusively on developing core features and functionality, not crunching data that the PR team can go talk to reporters about.

5. Determine and Track Key Metrics, Measure Results and Adjust.  Some of our key metrics for PR activity include #interviews, #media mentions, #press releases, total consumer reach, unique visitors by media publication, social media followers, UV conversion (to sale) and Revenue.  Key metrics must be tracked!  Which implies there is an ability to actually attribute performance to PR versus some other activity such as viral, marketing, SEO, etc.  We set up unique campaign URL’s in our business intelligence software to track each media campaign separately.

What techniques have you used to build your brand in the early days?

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