British magazine publisher Dennis is quietly building an e-commerce empire, and not through affiliate revenue — through online car sales.
The publisher generated $43 million (£31 million) in 2017 from selling used and new cars via its site Buyacar.co.uk, double from the previous year. By the end of 2018, its car commerce business is forecast to hit $83 million (£60 million), roughly 45 percent of its entire revenue, according to the publisher.
But Dennis hasn’t even scratched the surface of car commerce. Just over 8 million used cars are sold in the U.K. each year, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, around 7,000 of which are sold by Dennis directly from its site Buyacar.co.uk. “As an overall percentage of that market, what we’re doing is still very small,” said Pete Wootton, managing director of digital for Dennis. “We want to massively scale the business because we believe it will generate revenue in the hundreds of millions [of pounds] in the next few years. Next year, I believe we’ll make £100 million [$138 million].”
The majority of cars Dennis sells via Buyacar.com are used, with around 450 sold a month. By early 2019, Dennis expects to sell 1,000 a month. New cars are sold through the site, too, but for now the focus is on used cars because they offer higher margins. The best margins are made on cars that are sold on finance packages, where people pay in monthly installments, according to Wootton. For example, the margin on a car bought on finance is around $1,400 (£1,000), while it’s $482 (£350) for one bought outright. Dennis hasn’t yet tapped other areas like car insurance, in which it plans to expand.
Owning the customer transaction is a major point of difference for publisher e-commerce strategies, which typically center on revenues from affiliate links. Dennis also has affiliate revenues, driven by its tech title Expert Reviews. But while affiliate revenues are a good addition to the bottom line, they won’t arm the publisher for the future like selling cars will, according to Wootton. That’s partly because publishers don’t retain the customer data on purchases made via affiliate links, as they typically occur on the product sellers’ own sites. Most of the time, that site is Amazon, which could change the commissions they pay at any time.
“Amazon is the biggest affiliate partner, and it could change its algorithm at any time, so anyone [publishers] relying on that would see their revenues massively reduce overnight. You’re not in control of it,” Wootton said. “But when we own the transaction, we’re in control.”
It helps that Dennis publishes several car magazines, including Auto Express and Carbuyer, whose sites have 2.5 million and 1.2 million monthly visitors, respectively, according to comScore. These sites have referred 15 percent of Buyacar customers directly to the site, and 10 percent of total car transactions come from referral traffic from these sites. Unsurprisingly, it is Google search that helps drive Buyacar customer purchase conversions rather than Facebook, so the content team for Buyacar focuses a lot of its attention on SEO.
Interestingly, 68 percent of the people who buy cars via the site are between 18 and 34 years old, and 45 percent are women. Some of this data goes into Dennis’ data-management platform so it can build out segments for ad targeting. But there are far more ambitious plans for commercializing the data. Car manufacturers in Europe are asking Dennis what it has learned from selling cars online, such as whether there are patterns in what cars sell better online compared to those sold directly via car dealerships. “We can see those patterns, so there could be some really interesting new avenues around consultancy,” added Wootton, who is also having conversations with other publishers in continental Europe about licensing agreements.
Dennis plans to direct more resources to improving the product, expanding its content strategy to drive more traffic and hiring more staff. Part of its challenge is finding skilled people fast enough to match the growth and levels of inquiries received each month, according to Wootton. Although the team has grown from five people to 40 people since Dennis bought Buyacar in 2015, that’s still a modest number of people to handle 3,000 finance requests and 6,000 sales inquiries monthly. Dennis plans to expand to 60 people by year-end.