George Mienie has an interesting theory about what sells a used truck. “It has got to tell a story,” he says. “People prefer to engage with compelling stories more than data. Buyers are psychological beings – they love an interesting tale. That’s why parents don’t choose to get their children to solve math problems when they go to bed – they know they’d prefer a story.”

Mienie maintains that the same formula applies to truck sales and, for this reason, AutoTrader Commercial carries, on top of a personalised seller to tell component – which enables sellers to tell compelling stories about their trucks – news features about commercial vehicles as well as product reviews.

“Beyond mileage, condition and price, prospective buyers are interested in a vehicle’s history. That’s what we try to reflect. If the story is good, interest in the product is heightened,” Mienie says.

He should know. As CEO of AutoTrader he’s made a career out of digital marketing in South Africa’s automotive landscape. Since joining the then print publication in 2004, he’s driven AutoTrader’s transition to the digital world – where it dominates South Africa’s automotive retail portals – and has also managed the rise of AutoTrader Commercial and AutoTrader Bikes, off-shoots that focus on trucks and motorcycles. Commercial listings include yellow metal as well as equipment related to the construction, mining and agricultural sectors.

“The commercial vehicle market in South Africa is about quarter the size of the passenger car market,” Mienie says. “With the economy under pressure, everything is down – there’s less investment and less appetite to buy. The focus for many dealers in the used truck market is shifting to repairs and service as they try to reposition their businesses to remain sustainable.”

However, in terms of the usefulness of AutoTrader Commercial as a business tool, Mienie says the title tends to buck the downward spiral. “In terms of traffic to the site we’re growing at a rate of about 38% a month. And, at any one time, you’ll find an average of about 7 000 vehicles and items of equipment for sale online.

“We’re a business to business product, essentially targeting industries in the market that use the vehicles and equipment we advertise. Our job is to bring sellers and buyers together – and I think we’re doing a very good job of accomplishing that. Our figures speak for themselves,” he says.

Apart from its online presence, AutoTrader Commercial is published fortnightly as a magazine with a print order of around 16 000 copies each month. However, Mienie foresees that the publication will go the way of AutoTrader and become solely digital in future.

“We’re in a period of transition,” he says. “Online publishing is much more efficient than print. First, there’s the convenience factor – prospective vehicle buyers have the internet in their pockets and they can simply browse for whatever it is they are looking for.

“Second, though the choice on the AutoTrader Commercial site is vast, we make it easy for buyers to find precisely the vehicles or equipment they need through a simple process that’s designed to take them straight to the item for which they are searching.

“And third, we are able to offer additional services – such as reputable partners in the repair, finance or insurance fields – to help make purchases even more seamless. These are aspects that are difficult to easily replicate in a print equivalent.”

He makes reference, too, to the relative ease with which target markets can be approached via the digital world and the immediacy of advertising updates. “Everything happens in real time,” he says. “When a vehicle is sold the listing is deleted. If a new truck is offered for sale it is listed as soon as the paperwork has been completed.”

To help protect buyers, AutoTrader Commercial carefully vets advertisers, completing a number of background checks before a listing is accepted. However, vehicles or equipment are not inspected. “That would be impossible,” says Mienie. “We can have up to 10 000 commercial products advertised on the site at one time. Essentially we make sure that whoever is doing the selling is reputable – if there is any doubt, the ad is rejected.”

In terms of AutoTrader’s leadership position in the retail field, Mienie attributes success to a strategy that focuses on finding paths around obstacles or challenges. “Simply, if you concentrate too much on the obstacle, chances are you’re going to collide with it. The solution is to find a clear way around it – that way you gain an advantage over competitors.”

Though the South African titles are independently owned – like those in the UK and US – Mienie says there is a fair amount of informal liaison between the entities regarding innovations or ideas that could prove helpful or useful to one another.

“We discuss things on a fairly regular basis,” he says. “It’s important to keep abreast of trends that could affect one market or another.”

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