Car transactions are down for the third consecutive year and consumer demand is dramatically shifting (away from diesel and towards alternative fuels), but the marketing expenditure on used cars remains robust overall. Auto Trader has extended its leading position as the largest used car portal, so far shielded from the structural headwinds affecting its core customer group of dealerships. Several disruptors have entered the UK automotive space in the past couple of years, but none have gained real traction in the listings space, instead opting for ancillary approaches. Tech disruption will come, but much longer term.

Expenditure on UK classifieds peaked in 2004, but has since almost halved to £1.95 billion in 2018. In every vertical, the print to digital transition of expenditure has favoured a first mover, leading to dominant positions that challengers find hard to disrupt.

The property market was stagnant in 2019, with stable house price growth but low transaction volumes as Brexit uncertainty held back sales. An expected cut in interest rates this year should contribute to a slight rise in transaction volumes.

The low tide of transactions has cemented the reign of Rightmove and condemned challengers to low traction. No. 2 player, Zoopla, plans for a major drive in 2020 after a 1.5-year investment spree by parent private equity firm Silver Lake Partners.

The local press is in an existential crisis: relentless decline in revenues since 2004 has rebased the scale of the sector, but there is little if any consensus about what to do next, despite broad agreement that the implications for democracy are deeply troubling

Incumbents have focused on incremental innovation with limited success, and have failed to adapt their digital strategies from those created 20 years ago, despite overwhelming evidence that they do not work, and never will

We argue for radical innovation, switching the industry’s focus from advertising to communities, building new use-cases while also sustaining print media for as along as possible, both to buy time but also to develop a multimedia roadmap for utility, entertainment and public good services

New car registrations will be down 6.3% (2.4m) in 2018, another year of decline from the 2016 peak of 2.7m, impacted by the soft consumer confidence in big-ticket purchases, with some spin down to used car sales

Auto Trader, despite the car industry’s downturn, has experienced only marginal pain thanks to the strategic focus on revenue diversification – principally into new cars, dealer auctions and enhanced subscription-based services for dealers

Our forecasts for media expenditure on cars in 2018 and 2019 are essentially flat. Auto Trader’s positioning offers insulation in a downturn, and we expect they will gain share in marketing spend, though not necessarily in terms of total consumer or industry expenditure

The UK consumer’s loss of confidence since the June 2016 referendum vote in favour of Brexit has reduced the revenues of both estate agents and auto dealers, with knock-on effects on their media spend, entrenching further the leadership positions of Rightmove and Auto Trader respectively. Only the UK’s recruitment marketplace is buoyant with a record level of vacancies, benefiting general recruitment aggregator Indeed, although deepening Brexit gloom among businesses will rapidly melt away vacancies

With internet users flocking to portals and away from print media, advertisers have followed suit with media spend on these portals to stimulate purchaser interest, although transactions are still conducted offline. Facebook and Google, which have long histories of contesting markets for local advertisers with little success, have re-entered classifieds. Facebook Marketplace is now accepting listings from estate agents and dealers, expanding from C2C to B2C in homes and cars. Google Jobs launched in the UK in July 2018 and enjoys partnerships with all the major portals other than Indeed

The sharp decline in sales and shift to lettings, sluggish price growth and pressure on estate agents’ commissions, are making marketing key to driving transactional activity in a longer sales funnel. Rightmove’s revenues are on track for a 10% increase in 2018 on the uplift in average revenue per agent (ARPA). Zoopla's market share rose with the end of OnTheMarket's 'one-other-portal' rule for shareholders upon its AIM listing in February 2018 

The slowing UK economy since Q3 2016 has had a knock-on effect on the property and autos marketplaces underlying UK classified advertising revenues, with house prices slowing, transactions stabilising (instead of rising), and new car registrations down sharply in 2017 to date. Recruitment activity by agencies and employers has instead been dynamic as the UK nears full employment

Advertisers in these verticals continue to switch expenditure from print classifieds to internet portals and search, which offer superior lead generation, analytics, and user experience. Only in property do local newspapers still fulfill an important estate agency branding function for the local area, although declining readership is blunting this value to advertisers

Portal dominance comes at a price to advertisers in property, where Rightmove has resisted agent efforts to lessen dependence by listing on other brands, as well as in used autos, where Auto Trader has long reigned supreme. Recruitment is a more contested market for portals, reflecting the diverse and fragmented nature of the jobs market, but Indeed has a strong grip on the low-end, while LinkedIn remains unchallenged in social recruitment advertising

Print advertising in the autos classifieds marketplace keeps declining, but significant continued online growth steadies the helm

Five years on from new car financing innovations, and exasperated by changes in consumer behaviour towards greener tech, the used car market is braced for a flood

Auto Trader’s competitors force it to keep innovating, although having saturated the market, its dominance gives it enough headroom to worry about the weather breaking

Our annual review of vertical marketplaces (classifieds) is provided over three reports, with property and auto to follow, and this first report summarizing the macro trends, issues and outlook, as well as a detailed study of recruitment marketing. Taken as a whole we identify three critical themes in specialist markets:

• Portals are extraordinarily popular with consumers, growing their importance in the value chain; the print to digital transition is far from over
• But portal reliance on revenue growth from print decline is starting to retreat; revenue diversification strategies are emerging
• Nonetheless, disruption in vertical markets is stubbornly slow, with leading portals using paid media models (print models) to sustain their position.

The recruitment market is buoyant (up 10%), so portals, specialists and intermediaries are generally doing well, while local newspapers have lost some market share. Linkedin (professional social media, which has diversified into skills and training) and Indeed (freemium jobs aggregator, which provides performance charging and will introduce new services in 2016) are the key influences in the marketplace, and both are growing very strongly. The value chain in recruitment is being slowly restructured. Recruiter demand for highly skilled, specialist candidates does not have the labour supply to support it, sustaining marketing expenditure, though print spend continues to decline.