App Growth Talks: Auto Trader’s Paul Davey on Engaging Customers & Growing an App

In this episode of App Growth Talks, we talked to Paul Davey, Senior Mobile Marketing Manager at Auto Trader UK

We discussed how the Auto Trader app engages various segments of customers, what are the key metrics to measure success, how to leverage Apple Search Ads to drive installs, Paul’s take on the big trends shaping the industry, and more.

​​Watch & listen to the podcast, and read the interview below.

About Auto Trader app

Lina Danilchik, SplitMetrics: 

Paul, Auto Trader UK is basically a leading website and app for those who are looking to buy or sell a car. So I wanted to ask you, how do you identify and target your ideal users and what strategies have proved to be most effective in terms of driving installs and engaging users for the Auto Trader app?

Paul Davey, Auto Trader UK:

Absolutely. And for those who perhaps don’t know, Auto Trader actually started 40 years ago as a print magazine. So believe it or not, that’s how people used to buy and sell, particularly used cars here in the UK. You’d have to send your photo in with a little bit of copy. But obviously, over the years, Auto Trader has evolved into, firstly, a website, but more recently into an app. And we’re now the leading car marketplace app in the UK. We have around 3 million monthly active users and that continues to grow very healthily. So that’s really good news. But I think what’s been very pivotal to the strategies around the app has been the heritage that we’ve built up over those 40 years has afforded us a degree of trust for people that are looking to buy their first car. I’ll go back to my own experience. I turned to my dad to ask, how do I go about buying a car? Because I had no real knowledge of how to go about that.

And I think it was his experience of using Auto Trader many years ago that he said, well, why not look at Auto Trader? And then I started to get involved in Auto Trader and look through cars as well. So I think there’s a lot of trust in the Auto Trader brand and families having used them in years gone by. Obviously, passing that knowledge on to others, which is helping us a lot, I think, particularly from the app perspective in terms of today, in terms Auto Trader app. At any one point in time, there are over 400,000 vehicles available to choose from on our platform. And that is just from cars. Bikes, e-bikes, a recent addition, motorcycles. So there’s a massive array of vehicles out there. And I think what has been particularly interesting is whether you are into cars and you love looking at cars and therefore you are just scrolling late at night through the latest Ferraris or Lamborghinis. That’s clearly driving a lot of engagement for our app.

But also perhaps if you don’t know what you’re looking for, from an install perspective, we’re leveraging a lot of the behavioral data for people as they visit the site, perhaps the particular car make or model that they’re looking for to feed that into some adverts that then encourage them to come back in and see the latest stock that’s becoming available. So I think both of those areas have worked very successfully for us.

Metrics Auto Trader tracks to measure the success of campaigns


Wow, what a story! 40 years, such a great story. And I remember there were catalogs with clothes. Similarly, I believe this is how everything evolved. And it’s really great you have such an extensive choice of cars. Being a shopaholic myself, I like when there is a great choice, although it’s harder to choose, but it’s better than a really limited choice. I believe your users enjoy this great selection and they can always find everything they need, so that’s really awesome.

So when running campaigns targeted at your potential users, already existing, or someone who used to utilize your service like you did in the past, are there any specific metrics you track to measure the success of those campaigns? And if so, how do you optimize them to achieve even better results in the long run?


Exactly. Just for those who don’t know Auto Trader, we’re relatively unique in that we don’t actually monetize directly on the platform. You don’t buy your car from Auto Trader. We put you in contact with a lot of car dealerships or private sellers who are looking to sell cars. Therefore, our platform is built around lead generation and getting eyeballs onto our ads. So the two key metrics that we optimize towards are ad views and leads. And we leverage those quite successfully across, feeding them back into selected ad partners.

From an ad view perspective, it’s about getting people to look through those array of car ads. And obviously, given there’re 400,000 vehicles at any one point on the platform, we do want you to make sure that the ad views are related to what you’re looking for, because you can get a bit overwhelmed by the amount of stock available. So again, making sure that we’re serving the right car, make or model, or if you are after a particular color of car, or crucially, a price point at this point in time, making sure that it’s relevant to where you are in your car buying journey and what you’re looking for is very important for us.

And we leverage that quite a lot, particularly around some catalog feeds. So we create some dynamic adverts that actually use livestock to create the little advert. Again, if we can relate that back to specifically what you’re looking for, then we know you’re far more inclined to click on that advert and land on the site. And then from a lead perspective. Ultimately, I guess a lot of this is down to the product. And when you’re on a particular ad view, it’s making sure that then you have a lead type, whether it be email, call, text, that is convenient for you to then get in contact with the car dealership. So, yeah, they’re kind of the two metrics that we really kind of optimize towards.

Apple Search Ads


So you’re kind of connecting the dots, connecting those who are selling the cars and those who are looking for something specific. And that’s really great that you mentioned relevancy. I think relevancy is basically king today. It’s about personalization, customization towards users needs. Thank you for sharing, Paul.

And my next question is about advertising, acquiring new users. Apple Search Ads, in my opinion, is becoming an increasingly important channel for app growth. I would even say it’s a must have for now, especially if your app is placed on the App Store. So I wanted to ask if you could share how you work with Apple Search Ads to drive installs and probably increase – although the brand is already huge, as we all know, – brand awareness? How do you utilize this channel to also drive visibility for the Auto Trader app on the App Store and probably beyond?


Absolutely. And I think you’re perfectly correct. Apple Search Ads has become very important, has been for a number of years. But I think particularly over the last few years with some of the IDFA changes, I think we have seen Apple Search Ads perform better. So I think it has become our most dominant platform – ad partner for iOS.

In terms of how we work with Apple Search Ads, I know for some people this will be quite interesting because it can be a little bit of a controversial topic. We run quite a strong brand defense campaign and again, a lot of people will think: aren’t you just cannibalizing the installs that you would get anyway? We’ve actually run quite a few experiments around brand defense and we have seen that actually, yes, of course we do cannibalize some of those installs that we would be getting anyway. But we do find that quite a number of our competitors step into our brand keyword terms and therefore, we are at threat of those competitors stealing a number of our users as a result of targeting a very high-traffic set of keywords around Auto Trader.

So we do a lot of work around brand defense first and foremost, and that secures a degree of visibility and installs for Auto Trader.

But then on the flip side, we do target a lot of competitive terms ourselves. We also have a lot of category terms and I think particularly for Auto Trader, we play in a lot of different areas. So you can buy a car, you can sell a car, we have electric, we have new, we have used ones, we have motorbikes, we have vans, we have trucks, we have e-bikes now. So there’s a very broad array of category terms that we leverage and target with our Apple Search Ads as well. 

custom product pages

Custom product pages are a wonderful opportunity for us to target a selection of keywords with slightly different creative rather than historically what has been just one generic set of kind of screenshots.

Paul Davey, Senior Mobile Markering Manager at Auto Trader UK

And probably the last point here from an Apple Search Ads perspective is we have started to experiment with some of the new formats as well. We’ve been trying the Today tab and there’re Search tab ads, where we’ve seen some successful results. It’s great to have these new visibility opportunities from Apple where we can try different things to get people to install the app.

How Paul & Auto Trader automate and optimize Apple Search Ads campaigns


Thank you so much for sharing, Paul. And I know that’s great that you are experimenting, trying new things out, new placements. And I know that in some cases, this might lead to a kind of halo effect when you are here and you are there, so you can beat your competitors this way. And yes, like Thomas Petit once said, if you don’t grab this opportunity, your competitors might just bite this piece of your traffic, basically. And yes, we will discuss custom product pages a bit later, but it’s really cool. You have such a diverse functionality for the Auto Trader app, so it would be a sin not to highlight all of them. And custom product pages, I think they provide this chance.

And Paul, you are our customer, you are taking advantage of SplitMetrics Acquire. So, of course, I can’t help but ask, what’s your experience with SplitMetrics Acquire and which features do you use most often? Could you probably share your take on the Bid Strategy? I know that you are an active user of this feature.


Yes, exactly. So if I go back to life before SplitMetrics. [In the native Apple Search Ads interface] we were leveraging install data. We had an MMP in the likes of Branch, and the data was fed into Branch for us to optimize towards. But it was very kind of manual, very intensive. You need a lot of time and effort to collate all that data together to really understand how to optimize for any of the given keywords or campaigns that you’re running. And we weren’t in a position where we could do that on a daily basis, which is perhaps one of the learnings we’ve had when we started to use SplitMetrics, that these things chop and change so regularly that you need to have some sort of platform that is able to quickly adapt to changes in share of voice or other things that are going on in the platform. I think life before SplitMetrics was quite challenging.

Once we’ve onboarded SplitMetrics Acquire, what’s been very clear for me is that it has been an extra pair of hands to support the optimization of those campaigns and I just don’t have the time to do that any other way.

We’ve been leveraging a lot of the automation tools in SplitMetrics, which has been very powerful for us to weed out non-performing keywords in particular. And then I think from a Bid Strategy perspective, what has been very significantly game-changing, and I’ll share some results in a minute, is now we have the ability to again stitch together the MMP data from Branch with SplitMetrics and we are now able to optimize towards either ad views or leads. And that totally has changed the game for us

In the past, if there was a particular competitive term that we were optimizing towards from an install perspective, we didn’t necessarily always know if it was great at then converting into leads.

But now that we have that data, we can truly see that a keyword that costs ten times more to generate an install, but is 20 times higher in terms of cost-per-lead, we can now justify the extra spend that we’re putting on that, because clearly the quality of traffic coming in from that particular keyword is much, much higher. 

Downloads ↑15%
TTR ↑51%
Cost per download ↓25%

So I think that’s been very important for us. And then just looking at the results that we’ve had, again, if I take the last twelve months versus the twelve months prior to SplitMetrics, our downloads are up 15%. Our spend, interestingly, is actually down 21%. So we’re saving a lot of money with SplitMetrics Acquire. Cost per download is down 25%. And again, I think another metric that’s quite interesting for me is tap-through-rate, which is up 51%. I think this is quite a strong reflection of the fact that we were just bidding on keywords that just weren’t performing, weren’t doing anything for us, but other than just they were getting an install. But clearly the quality of traffic on that install wasn’t very good [before starting with SplitMetrics].

So by removing a lot of those non-performing keywords and focusing on the ones that are performing and obviously increasing our share of voice, it’s just made a tremendous difference. Those results, when I looked at them, I was like, “wow, I didn’t realize they were quite as stark as I think.” You know, that really shows the strength of the overall SplitMetrics platform.

About cooperation with SplitMetrics


Wow, thank you so much, Paul, really impressive. Congrats on those outstanding results! 

And my next question is about cooperation with SplitMetrics in general as a company. What are your impressions of working with us?


I’ve been really impressed with how SplitMetrics go about things. And I think probably first it’s fair that I give a shout out to Alina [dedicated Customer Success Manager at SplitMetrics]. She has been very helpful in kind of holding our hand through both the onboarding process for SplitMetrics Acquire, but also then just as a regular point of contact in helping us optimize the platform and leveraging some of the new things that SplitMetrics launch. 

And automation from an Apple Search Ads perspective was something totally new to us. So again, holding our hand through that process, identifying where we would get most value in terms of the automated activity we run, I think Alina was very pivotal in helping us do that. So I think first and foremost, the levels of support that we’ve been provided have been very kind of welcome. And obviously we’re very grateful for that. And secondly, what’s really impressed me has been the rate of product development from SplitMetrics. Constantly. Every time I’m talking to Alina, it feels like there’s something new on the table and being either tested or put live.

Bid strategy was one of the things that obviously landed. That’s been very helpful for us to optimize towards ad views and leads more effectively. Also, in terms of identifying new keywords, I think that SplitMetrics has spent a lot of time and effort in working with other partners to bring in that data. And I think just the way that those keyword opportunities are now served to us, it’s very simple and straightforward to identify the ones that are most relevant to Auto Trader, and for us to now apply those as an exact match campaign or within an exact match campaign, I think is very quick and easy to just cherry pick those and move them across to the campaigns and to start testing those. Those two things have really impressed us.

How Auto Trader encourage customers to engage with their multiple services


Thank you so much, Paul, for such a high appraisal of our work, we really appreciate it. And of course, we enjoy working with you and with the Auto Trader app.

And speaking of that, let’s now get back to Auto Ttrader. We have discussed that you have a really diverse functionality and a wide range of services. How do you ensure that customers are aware of these services and encourage them to engage with them? Do you leverage custom product pages for that?


Exactly. And I think custom product pages are the relatively new opportunity here that we have started to experiment with. Again, I don’t profess to be an expert on custom product pages, but we have thousands of keywords that we are targeting with our Apple Search Ads activity. And historically, they’ve all been driving through to the one App Store and the one set of creative screenshots. And when you’re having to talk about, say, all of those things that I mentioned before, used cars, new cars, electric cars, motorbikes, vans, buying, selling, it is virtually impossible to convey all of those within a handful of screenshots, let alone perhaps the first three screenshots, which we know are so pivotal to the success of an app on the App Store. 
So I think now having the ability to leverage some custom product pages across selected groups of keywords has been a great opportunity for us. So we’ve experimented initially with particularly selling keyword terms. So we’ve put some competitors together, category terms, generic terms. We’ve put those into a group of selling keywords. And then we’ve created a set of screenshots that purely talk about our selling proposition.

12% TTR uplift with custom product pages

And we’ve definitely seen an uplift of tap-through-rate. I think it was up around 12% last time I looked at it. So we can see that as a consumer, when you’re searching for a particular selling keyword term, if the creative is talking about selling, you’re going to see people tap through a little bit more. So I think that has now given us the confidence to try even more custom product pages. 

I think one interesting thing that I’m looking to try over the next few weeks when we actually in the process of launching dark mode, which takes us a little bit longer than we would have liked to get there, but it’s something that a lot of our consumers ask for on our brand campaign. We see actually, on our brand defense campaign, an opportunity to actually run a custom product page there that can highlight a new feature like dark mode, because we rank number one for our own keyword. If we also get the ad placement at the top, you effectively get six screenshots to talk about something. And we’re going to run a custom product page that will effectively promote dark mode to our branded terms.

That potentially is seen by existing users as well as some potentially new users. So I think these new opportunities are something we couldn’t do in the past. And I think they’re very exciting in the way that we can now engage new and existing app users.

What challenges have you faced in growing the Auto Trader app, and how have you overcome them?


Thank you. So you can create and introduce more features and promote them even more effectively. And that’s really great. Let’s see where it all leads because everything is evolving at such a pace for now. 

And there are obviously some challenges with almost anything. And especially it can be tough when you are growing an app because the environment is highly competitive and the times are kind of turbulent, I would say. So I wanted to ask you, what kind of challenges have you faced when growing the Auto Trader app, if you faced any? And how have you overcome them?


Yeah, exactly. Auto Trader is a marketplace app. And as a challenge that I face is we don’t have any kind of, as such, monetization within the platform and a lot of our activity, perhaps benefit from some sort of transactional element to be able to optimize towards.

So that is in terms of, say, we optimize towards leads today, but there’s no set value assigned against those. So I think it is always a little bit challenging for us to understand what the return on advertising spend (ROAS) is when you don’t have a transactional element to your app. So that’s always been, we have to really look at ad views and leads. And yes, we do have cost per ad view and cost per lead calculations, but it’s difficult to assign what the value is, particularly for ad views, because we do get a lot of consumers who just love looking at cars. They want to look at the latest Lamborghinis, Ferraris on a weekly basis versus those that are perhaps truly in market to buy a car.

So I think being able to optimize towards the different audiences has always been a bit of a challenge for us. But I think crucially, one of the things that we’re doing internally is we now have a new customer data platform that is collating a ton of information about how users behave across the app. And I think now one of the big positive steps that we’re taking is we’re going to start to now build out audience groups based on their likelihood that they are genuinely in market versus kind of actually just browsing the site. And obviously, if we can identify that you are truly in market to buy a car, then we can target you with something slightly different, perhaps ad creative versus those that are just kind of browsing the site and just love cars. We want to monitor that group and try and understand when they are going to come back in market, because the average buying cycle is three to four years, which is very long for any kind of buying product. That’s the challenge that we face, is just trying to understand what our users are genuinely in market to do well.

What new to expect from the Auto Trader app in 2024


Yeah, three to four years is a really long cycle. So this is also challenging, I totally understand. 

And we’ve touched just a little bit the topic of new features, how you reflect them with custom product pages. So I wanted to ask, probably you’d like to share what new we could expect from Autotrader this year in 2024. What are your plans? If that’s not a secret, of course :).


No, not at all. I think very excitingly, we are looking to really dial up our new car kind of business and opportunity. So again, Auto Trader is very well established in terms of used cars, but there is a huge opportunity particularly this year, we think there’s going to be a lot of the potential stock availability, particularly electric cars.

For those who don’t know, perhaps the UK car marketplace, there is a mandate here in the UK where by the year 2035, all new cars that are sold need to be electric. So we are increasingly seeing more electric cars being sold here in the UK, more stock becoming available from manufacturers. So for us, there is a huge focus to become the number one destination for anyone looking for an electric car, whether that be to help educate you, but also to kind of help you buy a car. And we are looking to support the industry with some new features that allow you to do more of the car buying journey through the Auto Trader platform. Ultimately, what we’ve seen through our data is that people still want to sit in a car, they want to test drive a car before they purchase.

I think for cars at the moment, to go truly online is very challenging. I think people still are hesitant to buy a car without seeing it firsthand. So what we are looking to do is we are putting in things like finance agreements, the ability to part exchange your car, the ability to reserve a car. All of those features are now being added into the app, so you can complete a lot of the paperwork heavy things that you would have to have historically done while you’re sitting in a car dealership. We’re now encouraging you to do those on the platform. 

And then fundamentally, all you need to do is get into that dealership and test drive the car, confirm you’re happy with it, and then you can purchase the car for that. So again, it’s not true monetization, but it’s allowing the consumer to do a lot more of that car buying journey on the app itself. I think that’s a big focal point for us. And then specifically from a marketing perspective, I guess we’re looking at some new channels in the marketplace as well. We’ve historically been very successful with Apple Search Ads, Meta, Google app campaigns.

Auto Trader has struggled a little bit to get into Gen Z and new drivers. So we’re looking to leverage some partnerships, some of the new ad partners like TikTok, to see if we can particularly dial up some advertising content to encourage those first time car buyers to consider Auto Trader.


When you mentioned Gen Z, TikTok was on the tip of my tongue. And you’re already considering. And yeah, the features are really great! For the consumers, I think that would mean a lot. So congrats and good luck with launching this smoothly.

And I think we’ve had a really interesting talk today and wrapping up, I wanted to ask your vision, what really big trends do you see that would be shaping the mobile industry in the coming years?


I think probably the one that stands out to me, and certainly we’re looking at this very closely, is just that we have a lot of first-party data. Again, for anyone coming onto the Auto Trader app and searching for a car, there’s obviously car make and model, color, price range, the type of fuel that you want to use, the boot size. I mean, there is just a massive array of data that any given user is looking for when they come onto our platform. 

And I think for us it’s about how we can leverage that data more significantly, not only across our own site. So as a user experience, the site becomes very personalized to what you’re looking for. We do some of that today, but I think how can we extend that out into some of our own channels? So push notifications, email, what can we do from an advertising perspective? I think particularly we’re looking to obviously dial this up. And I think given some of the challenges around IDFA, we’ve got the Google sandbox, which is due at some point. I think being able to leverage this first-party data and crucially, getting people to sign up for push notifications and email campaigns is only going to cement Auto Trader’s position as being number one car marketplace app even further in the market.

There’s a ton of data, it’s a lot of work, but I think that is definitely something over the next few years we want to become even more successful at. And I think from an industry perspective, that is something that more and more apps are going to have to look at is how they leverage that data to encourage greater levels of engagement from their app audience.


Thank you so much. Huge thanks to you, Paul, for joining today, for sharing your thoughts, insights, and your plans at Auto Trader. I believe all of our listeners will really love it. So thank you so much and see you at the next app growth sessions.


Thank you, Lina!

Optimize Apple Search Ads with SplitMetrics
Let’s discuss how we can help your app grow!
Book a call
Share this article
Lina Danilchik
Lina Danilchik
Content Marketing Lead & App Growth Evangelist at SplitMetrics
Lina is Content Marketing Lead at SplitMetrics. She provides mobile marketers with best practices and tips on app growth, ASO, user acquisition and Apple Search Ads. Lina is also the host of App Growth Talks.
Read all articles
Unlock New Levels of Mobile Growth
Take your user acquisition to the next level. Consult with SplitMetrics experts
Let’s Talk
Share this article