Look, I’ve not been a big supporter of this TrueCar lynchmob for a few reasons. I don’t believe that TrueCar is solely responsible for all of the issues pointing their way. In my opinion, they are just a very visible and convenient target for a much wider-spread problem. My position has always been that the dealer needs to police its own data, not get mad at a vendor that’s been taking it and repurposing it. If you don’t want any vendor to have access to your DMS, don’t give it to them. Be mad, yes, but at yourself.
Transparency on the internet is not going away. Consumers won’t allow it. There are many third party sites that operate in a similar way to TrueCar. Getting rid of one is not going to stop other sites from taking their place.
If TrueCar is really changing to conform to state regulations, that’s a step in the right direction. You can’t blame THEM for the race to the bottom, dealers are to blame. Steve Stauning laid out the argument perfectly in his recent blog post: “How TrueCar.com Caught Dealers Off Guard”
This post, however, is not to debate whether TrueCar is right or wrong or any of the arguments for or against them.
I read today that TrueCar has purchased some interesting domain names from Domain Name Wire.
Now I don’t know about you, but that certainly doesn’t seem like a “dealer partner” to me. The only reason for buying those domains is to attract consumers who are pissed off at dealers. I mean, c’mon, anyone who wants to buy a car (which is what TrueCar is supposed to help people do easier, right?) and is searching with those keywords may not be a customer I want to have. That’s pretty extreme. Even if they optimize for DIFFERENT keywords, the fact remains that if someone were to click on that URL (after reading the domain name), I highly doubt they’re going there to try and buy a car. Chances are they’re going there because they feel like they’ve been.. well.. “f*cked by the dealer”. Now you’re going to try and massage that and send them to a dealer? What?!?
That’s a CSI nightmare waiting to happen and probably on a loser deal. (Not that the amount of profit should make a difference.)
Is this a preventative tactic? What will they actually PUT on those websites and/or where will they redirect them? Time will tell.
Like they didn’t have enough heat to worry about.
[NOTE: Since this post, I've added a new comment feature. Comments prior to today can be seen by scrolling down further under the "About" block of text.]
There is a lot of controversy in the automotive industry regarding which vendors are pulling data (customer or transactional) from a dealer’s DMS and then re-selling it to vendors like TrueCar and others. (I guarantee you that TrueCar is not the only vendor that’s using your data against you, FYI)
[Note: For non-automotive industry readers: DMS stands for Data Management System and is what contains all customer, financial, vehicle and transactional data (ie. all that information on the credit application you filled out when you bought that car). There are dealer vendors (website companies, 3rd party services like TrueCar.com, Edmunds.com, Cars.com, etc.) that are given access to this information for various reasons.]
Consumer privacy laws and red flag compliance keep getting stricter and stricter when it comes to customer personal information and how it needs to be protected. This is all well and good but I’d argue that most consumers don’t care about their personal information. They may say they do but actions speak louder than words.
An industry acquaintance shared a website yesterday that assists people in seeing, and cleaning up, which apps and websites are accessing your various social media accounts. (You can find it at http://mypermissions.org/ )
As I played around with it, there wasn’t much in there that surprised me but I’m also very diligent about which apps I allow to access my information and I periodically monitor them to remove permissions for apps or websites I no longer use. Even though I do that, there were a few in there that I was surprised to see. I guarantee you that a normal consumer has way more apps and websites accessing their personal information than I do – games, iPhone apps, websites with social media log-ins, plug-ins etc. Most require (or ask) to access your personal information to use their service. How convenient is it to use Facebook Connect? It’s super-easy but, every time you do, you are giving yet another website or app permission to access your personal information – essentially trading your information for convenience and/or the ability to utilize that particular website.
As I thought about this collection of different social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, etc. – it started to feel more and more to me like this was MY OWN PERSONAL DMS.
These accounts – singly and collectively – contain more personal information about me than any other source including the government.
Those social networks are free to use, but are they really? In one sense, they do exactly what your vendors are doing to your dealership’s DMS – selling your personal information for profit. Most consumers know this on some level and have chosen to allow that access in exchange for their information on some level. Sure, there are times when a consumer outcry occurs - say when Facebook changes a privacy setting – but those quickly go away mostly because the consumer modifies the permissions again (ie. who can see your posts or other activity on Facebook).
So consumers do care about protecting their information, posts, etc. from people on an individual level, what they’re not shielding themselves from or thinking about is what companies are getting their personal data (either from the sites themselves or from outside apps and websites that they’ve allowed access) and what those companies are doing with it.
So, while we’re in an uproar about what vendors are getting access to customer data and what they are doing with it, keep in mind that you also have your own personal DMS and, just like you should care who has access to your customer’s information, you should care about who has access to your own.
There’s been a lot of talk about TrueCar lately in automotive industry forums blasting them for their business practices and how “evil” they are. There’s a thread on DealerElite with over 33 PAGES of comments [edit: 50+ pages] in response to Jim Ziegler’s question:
..and even a video from Jerry Thibeau of Phone Ninjas who has a very strong opinion:
(Edit: I guess TrueCar didn’t like the video. It appears that they had it removed.)
My experience with HomeNet Automotive (the leading automotive data distribution company now owned by AutoTrader) gave me unique insight from all perspectives: vendors, 3rd party inventory sites and dealers.
Whether you think TrueCar is good or bad for the automotive industry, you have to step back and consider a few things:
(In regards to TrueCar having, and using, a dealer’s sales data) In the early days of inventory marketing, it was the general thought that having your inventory on every 3rd party site possible was a great idea. Most dealers signed up for every 3rd party site they could, especially if it was free. When I was an Internet Director, I signed up for them all also. When I was with HomeNet, I talked to many Dealer Principals that wanted their inventory everywhere. Most never read any “terms and conditions”, they just signed up. Any of these third party sites could have been polling their DMS for not only inventory but sales data and they never would have known. Nothing’s free. It wasn’t until recently that people started questioning the wisdom of shotgunning their data and, even then, it had nothing to do with whether the sites should have it but how it was effecting their SEOefforts and how the sites were using their data to collect leads then selling those leads to the dealer. It had nothing to do with the fact that they HAD the data in the first place.
When HomeNet Automotive integrated TrueCar into their inventory management tool, (IOL Pro), as a rep, I visited many dealers who loved the TrueCar feature and ability to use reports to close deals and research competitor pricing. Only a few even questioned where the data was coming from and in only one case was a dealer actually upset that we (ie. HomeNet) had the sales data at all. The fact remains that this data was given voluntarily by the dealer to hundreds of 3rd party sites, each with their own terms and conditions, and any of which could have been polling their DMS for sales data and, in turn, providing it to TrueCar, Edmonds, AutoTrader, etc. or any of the hundreds of other sites.
(In a now amusing tangent, industry people demonize Reynolds and Reynolds all the time for protecting their data (ie. not allowing unauthorized 3rd party access) and throttling their control over distributing it to just anybody and now these same people are complaining about 3rd parties having the data.)
Now, onto the lead program.. People are complaining that TrueCar leverages the dealer’s data (which the dealers are giving to countless websites already) to provide consumers information on the lowest prices for vehicles, converting the lead and offering it to the dealers on a per sale cost of $300 versus a per lead basis. Why is this so evil?
There are plenty of 3rd party sites that do the same thing with the only difference being that they charge per lead. Hell, even MANUFACTURERS do it. When I was in retail, I used a company with a similar pricing strategy named Autotropolis (since bought by Autobytel for $15 million). I LOVED those leads. I could easily identify a lead from them and factor in the $250 per sale fee into any deal structured or quote given to a consumer. I only paid when I sold a car. It was great. At least on a per sale basis, my cost per sale was fixed. With 3rd party leads, it wasn’t. I hear dealers complain about $900+ costs per sale with their AutoTrader programs yet they still participate. The point is that I was always in control of the sale. If I didn’t want to sell the vehicle at the pricing given to them, I didn’t. It was my choice. The fact is that I would rather have the opportunity to earn the sale than not have it. Why wouldn’t you want a fixed cost per sale on internet leads?
Dealers have been sending their transactional and inventory data to 3rd parties for YEARS. This isn’t some new phenomenon that’s all of a sudden appearing. Everyone wants to single out TrueCar when, in fact, TrueCar is only ONE OF MANY companies that have their data. Dealers have willingly and happily provided this data to 3rd party sites for YEARS (at least as far back as 2003 to some sites that I personally know of).
To top it all off, dealers and industry professionals have been evangelizing transparency in their sales processes, pricing and interactions with consumers yet it appears that dealers don’t really want transparency, what is wanted is the illusion of transparency.
Bottom line: If you don’t want your data used by a 3rd party, stop giving it to them. I’m not just talking about TrueCar, I’m talking about EVERY 3rd party.
TrueCar is a business that pays for information received from the dealers themselves. Rather than demonizing TrueCar for monetizing the data by providing a service to both consumers (via transparency) and dealers (via sales), don’t participate.
As the saying goes: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
(Edit: TrueCar is just a scapegoat and convenient target. I don’t necessarily disagree with all of the arguments, just the placing of the blame on TrueCar. Dealers created this, not TrueCar.)
UPDATE 12/1/11: Seems as if my friend Jerry created a new video.