In 2010 I received an email from Adnan Ebrahim. He was telling me about this new site he had started, Car Throttle, that was starting to get some press. At the time it was getting around 45,000 pageviews per month but he wasn’t sure how to take things to the next level. (No credit here, I had no advice since I didn’t know a thing about the car space online).
Today, Car Throttle has more than 1.2 million Facebook fans. Car Memes, which he also owns, has 1.4 million. He had record traffic days last month when he reached 1 million pageviews in a day for the first time ever. The day after, traffic records were broken again.
In January of this year BBC.co.uk wrote an article about his success and showed the site was on track to generate £1m in revenue in 2015.
Thanks to Azzam, I was able to interview Adnan about his success. I asked him questions ranging from Facebook tricks he uses that other people don’t know about to how he manages his staff with such a laid back company atmosphere.
And of course, everything in between.
Of course, there’s always a big risk involved when the majority of your traffic comes from a single source or platform. A few years ago it wasn’t uncommon for media publishers to be under Google’s thumb and rely on high rankings in SERPs, and then of course Panda and Penguin meant most of the scale-play, thin content sites took a huge hit. It pretty much spelled the end for Demand Media and so-called ‘content farms’.
The same rules apply with Facebook and I believe we were one of the first in the automotive space to really create content native to the platform. But the strategy is different; we’re creating real content for real users who get real utility when they click on a Car Throttle link post. That’s why we get so many comments on posts and why our users create their own content on Car Throttle.
For sure, we’re diversifying our traffic streams and have great presences on other platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, but we also have a hockey-sticking direct homepage entrances graph.
One of our advisors James Bromley, who used to run MailOnline, always tells me that’s the only graph that really matters – it quantifies your brand appeal and shows your true worth. And he’s right; those users view many more pages, are loyal, super engaged and create posts. It’s the classic platform rule: 99% of your users will consume whilst only 1% will actually create.
I would probably say we took inspiration from a combination of Facebook’s three-column layout, Twitters display of in-line rich media and Reddit’s community structure. I think that’s one of Car Throttle’s main draws: we’ve taken a niche like cars, but managed to drill so far down into that niche where we can still find traction but where users are hugely loyal because they’re surrounded by like-minded enthusiasts.
The main point of the platform was to decrease our dependency on other platforms to give us traffic, but also to increase repeat visits. Prior to Discuss (our first iteration of a user-generated content product) we were only able to produce 12-18 articles per day due to our limited editorial budgets. I mean, that’s still much more content than some of our competitors. But you have to understand today’s internet users: they can consume content infinitely. They (and I!) have severe information addiction.
So when they’re on the train, or on the toilet (not even joking), the first thing they’ll do is whip out their phone and hit up Facebook or Twitter and see what’s going down. We wanted that kind of repeat activity on Car Throttle. But when you’re short on money and editorial hiring power, the only way this can happen is if you embrace user interaction and give them the tools to create. That’s what we did, and we now see over 1,000 posts per day!
It’s funny, I would still hesitate to call us a ‘success’. For me, success looks a lot like Snapchat from a user number perspective or Facebook or Google from a pure revenue generating and scale perspective. We’re still a relatively small player. I think the team would agree with me that there were two clear inflection points for Car Throttle: the first was in early 2013 when we first started realising the potential of Facebook to drive huge traffic.
In the process, we acquired a (then small) page called Car memes from a Bristol University student Gabor, who is now our Head of Marketing. The second was this year when we released our platform and started to realise the sheer number of emails we get from users, video opportunities we get access to (and of course, car loans) and actions that occur on the platform.
We average 100,000 comments and 1.37 million events per month!
When you think that Car Throttle started as a WordPress blog in my University bedroom, it’s pretty awesome. But there’s a lot we still have to prove, it’s just the stakes are a lot higher now.
The main thing to note at Car Throttle, in terms of atmosphere, is that first and foremost, we’re all friends. We hang out after work, we hang out at weekends, and even when I don’t want them to, the guys talk about Car Throttle – our plans, our problems, and trying to solve the issue of how do we grow faster. Importantly, we can have a laugh one minute but have a deadly serious discussion the next. Everyone has a valid opinion and I like to think the best ideas win out regardless of who has them.
If you want to create an atmosphere where people love the brand as much as you do, it makes sense to give them the autonomy to have a say in the same important decisions.
And when in doubt, we abuse each other’s cars. Our YouTube presenter and Editor Alex is now the proud owner of a hairdresser’s Mk1 MX-5, so it’s quite hard to run out of abuse ammo… 😉
Oh man, I think I could talk for hours about Facebook and how it’s changed. What you’ve got to remember, is that Facebook changes what it wants, when it wants. And if you want to get access to their audience, you have to play by their rules and as you said yourself, figure out what works.
In 2013, memes worked. You could post a meme on Car memes and easily see a thousand likes in a few minutes. Then Facebook decided to penalise pages with memes. And suddenly more emphasis was placed on link posts and rich content and Facebook told us it would promote sites that didn’t have high user bounce rate. And then link post reach continued to decline and auto-play videos burst onto the scene.
One of our most popular videos reached 50 million users on Facebook in a few days. 50 million! That’s just nuts.
So we’ve experimented with all forms of content – links within image posts, links within video posts, video calls-to-action. Tagging pages in updates is something we’ve done for the last few years and to be honest, is fairly intuitive. When someone shares your post on their feed, you give users another click call-to-action to like by tagging your page. Keep your content varied, so don’t just post continuous links back to your site, you need to create content for Facebook.
Also, don’t focus on likes as being the most important FB metric, your ‘talking about’ number or engagement is infinitely more important. It shows how many of your users are likely to actually interact with your post.
Lots of Facebook pages we’ve looked at have over 1 million fans but awful engagement (literally tens of likes on their photos) – firstly, that just screams ‘paid fans’ and those paid fans continue to hurt you as they’re not engaged and they lower your overall engagement rate, which impacts future posts. It’s a horrible snowball effect.
The main Facebook strategy, and this is going to sound extremely obvious and annoying for people reading who want to pick up a quick trick, is to post great content. If you post great content, people will want to like your page and, most importantly, share your posts. If someone shares your post, you win.
So focus on how can I get someone to share this post – is it a call-to-action telling them to share (unlikely, Facebook doesn’t like that)? Is it insanely viral content? Is it so niche that it appeals to a specific sub-set of users? Then do all the usual things: make sure your profile image stands out and uses bold colours, make sure the name is concise, make sure you use Facebook’s video calls-to-action, make sure you post multiple times per day.
Our posting schedule is done religiously at certain times of the day.
With an editorial and social team based around the world, you need to have a Facebook plan in the same way you’d have an editorial plan, or a video schedule. We post links at certain times and images at other times (when we’ve determined that engagement is at its highest). Remember, most of our fans are based in USA, so we make sure to cater to specific timezones when people are most likely checking their feed, and you should too.
That’s a great question. As an industry outsider back in 2009 (when I first started Car Throttle in my University bedroom), the idea of getting a press car sent to my house seemed ridiculous. And to be honest, I didn’t understand the mechanics of it – who paid for what? What was the arrangement? How does one make it onto a manufacturer’s list?
I spent a lot of those early years sending cold emails asking to be considered for a loan vehicle and most of the time, I’d get rejected. Car Throttle was either too small, too irrelevant, or I was too young to be able to drive anything. Then, we started to gain organic traction (this was before Facebook). 10,000 uniques per month became 50,000 uniques per month.
And then I just lucked out on an agency invitation to attend a Volvo Press Drive for the S60 and V60 R-Design. I called up my friend Ed, who I knew from school was a bit of a camera wizard, and asked him to be my videographer for the day. I bought a cheap Panasonic camcorder and we rocked up and filmed two videos.
Those two reviews went on to get 100,000 views and if you want to see what an amateur looks like, you can still find them on YouTube! But those videos proved that we were hard working, able to create something for a different audience (and back then, not many bloggers produced any video) and able to get some traction.
From there, it was a snowball effect. Mitsubishi very kindly lent me a Colt Ralliart for a week, then Honda sent a CR-Z, then Skoda sent us Fabia vRS. Once manufacturers could see we were a legitimate outlet, with an audience, it became a lot easier to ask for access to cars. But driving fancy cars has never been the aim for us, and that’s the mistake a lot of bloggers make. Press offices are our partners, but their objective is to reach audiences who might consider buying their cars. We’ve stayed loyal to our audience and do everything to please them. Without our fanatical users, we are nothing, and without those users, there’d be no point in anyone lending us a car.
Today, the team gets to drive some amazing vehicles ranging from cars like the Aston Martin Vanquish, to the BMW i8. And this week, we’ve got in a Volvo V60. It’s funny how things come full circle.
Until now, the majority of our advertisers reached out to us to organise a campaign. These range from branded content requests to in-feed ads (we don’t run banner ads). We use certain networks to help manage in-feed slots but most of the time, our bigger deals are sold by us and account managed by us.
But obviously that only gets you so far and it means that you tend to miss out on big deals from big agencies. So now we have a dedicated Head of Sales who’s tasked with improving our relationships with agency buyers and getting us in front of the larger media spenders, as we now have the scale to deliver amazing results, particularly as we’re one of the largest in a very important niche.
Breaking a million pageviews was a real milestone for us, and the fact that we did 1.2 million pageviews so soon after felt great. Obviously, the demise of TopGear and the fallout that occurred helped to fuel those insane traffic days, but our platform held up amazingly well. I think I’ve mentioned most of the latest stats: we now have around 100,000 comments per month on the platform, over 1,000 posts per day… and this continues to grow every month.
But one of the best recent experiences I had was hosting our first ever real-life Car Throttle car meet. We booked out the Ace Cafe in London and parked 50 amazing cars in the car park. We had YouTube celebrities and important manufacturers turn up and it was the first time I was genuinely shocked by how far we’ve come in such a short space of time. The internet can be an extremely abstract place, and 500,000 unique visitors in a day doesn’t really register.
But when you have 500 people turn up to a car meet you organise, who want to take photos with your team and who tell you how Car Throttle has changed their lives, then it becomes something really special.
Adnan, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Sorry I couldn’t help you back in 2010, but it’s clear I should be the one asking you questions rather than the other way around.
Congratulations on all of your success, and I hope it long continues.
I’m going to try and convince Adnan to answer some of your questions in the comments (if he has time) so if you have anything you would like to ask him, fire away!