There’s a place in auto retailing for digital leads, and plenty of them, says Steve Lind of Autotrader, the nation’s biggest online automotive marketplace.

But all leads are not created equal. Accordingly, Autotrader now is concentrating more on hooking dealers up with online car shoppers whose digital behavior indicates they’re serious about buying.

“We’re reimagining this company,” says Lind, Autotrader’s senior vice president-operations and general manager.

“We’ve always been a volume website, but we’re shifting the focus to quality, to buying-triggers,” he tells WardsAuto. “And we’ve invested a lot in analytics to understand consumer shopping patterns and bring it all together.”

The tracking technology identifies those buying-triggers that indicate a shopper is close to making a purchase at a dealership.

The triggers include phoning or emailing a dealership, “saving” a vehicle in a website’s virtual shopping cart, partaking in anonymous chat, printing a website map with directions to the dealership and submitting a Kelley Blue Book Instant Cash Offer on a shopper’s prospective trade-in. Like Autotrader, Kelley is a Cox Automotive brand.

“Buying-triggers allow the consumer to interact with the dealer under terms that benefit both,” Lind says. “We offer solutions that are flexible and customizable to each shopper and how they prefer to engage, increasing consumers’ confidence before they walk into a dealership.”

If a shopper on the Autotrader website shows an active interest in a particular vehicle that’s in a particular dealer’s inventory, Autotrader seeks to create what Lind calls “an exclusive one-on-one connection.”

That means not throwing the ball in the air for a bunch of dealers to try to catch. Lind emphatically opposes the practice of distributing a single lead to several dealers and letting them fight for the sale.

“We’re telling a dealer, ‘Here’s a customer we’re connecting exclusively to you,’” he says. “We’re not taking that information and giving it to three or four other same-brand dealers. That’s the message I’m carrying forward.”

Autotrader lists about 5 million vehicles, many of them in dealer inventory, others for sale by private owners.

Most of Autotrader's revenue comes from dealer subscriptions for advertising and digital marketing services. About a third comes from automaker digital marketing programs. Less than 10% is from private seller ads. The company doesn't sell leads to dealers.

The Autotrader, No.1 in volume among third-party websites, has more than 15 million unique visitors a month in the U.S., according to comScore Media Metrix.

Obviously, not all online car shoppers are on the verge of buying. Some user activity is repetitive, exploratory or aspirational (i.e. teenagers looking at Porsches). For that group, there’s not much intent (or wherewithal) to buy.

There’s also a subset of consumers who are in the market and use Autotrader – to an extent.

They use it to shop and research vehicles, but not to directly connect with dealers. Instead, they head directly to the dealership with their gleaned information.

It’s hard to measure their precise numbers, Lind says. “Those walk-ins aren’t at the dealership saying, ‘What kind of cars do you sell here?’ They say, ‘I’m interested in that used blue Ford Edge with 12,000 miles on it that you’re selling.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com