Motoring website Auto Trader launched its first iPhone app two weeks ago. Though the DVLA has since forced it to remove the number plate recognition feature, it remains a very useful app. 

I’ve been talking to Director of Mobile Nick Gee about the new iPhone app, and Auto Trader’s mobile strategy. 

How long has Autotrader had a mobile presence?

Auto Trader has had a mobile (WAP) site since 2002. In July 2008 we revisited the WAP site and launched a .mobi site, and in July 2009 we launched our offering to address the diversity in the mobile market with separate versions for differing handset capability levels.

Why decide to develop an iPhone app rather than optimising the existing site for the phone?

Auto Trader currently has a .mobi site that is optimised for the iPhone and the iPod touch. This sits alongside a basic text and an XHTML version of the site. The iPhone site has touch screen technology and is designed to give a great user experience.

We decided to develop an app as it allows us to provide something new for the user that plays with what mobile can really offer. Apps enable us to combine our search with more of the functionality an iPhone offers; in this case with the camera and to a lesser degree using GPS to add location to a search and device orientation to enhance image presentation.

What advantages does this approach offer?

An app can enhance the uniqueness of mobile. We knew that 45% of our audience were using to find out more about a car on a dealer forecourt.

The app lets us begin to experiment servicing this emerging behaviour, making point of search in the ‘real world’ work with the information available the ‘digital world’. This seamless integration is a pretty cool start and holds the potential to become incredibly powerful.

You can connect information immediately to the car in front of you with very little effort and a lot of accuracy using your phone.

I’ve noticed that a lot of brands seem to be launching an app rather than a mobile site – why do you think this is?

Apps are currently one of the most prominent areas of the mobile market. One can’t deny the success of the Apple App Store and the shockwave it’s created for users in the mobile market.

Apps offer brands the opportunity to engage with their target audience in new ways on a very personal device. It really boils down to what a brand wants to achieve.

For Auto Trader it was allowing consumers a choice in how they want to access our service in mobile and extending the user’s mobile search experience beyond what is currently possible with our mobile site.

What kind of visitor numbers do you typically get on the mobile site? What percentage were iPhone users?

For February 2010 we had 516,000 unique users on (Omniture) with half of visitors using an iPhone or iPod touch. This ratio has been fairly consistent for about a year now.

Do any other handsets figure strongly? Will you be developing apps for them in future?

There is no clear second contender handset wise. We are keen to make sure we continue investing in development that benefits both car buyers and sellers.

Understanding both the usage of the iPhone App and our .mobi site will help us decide how to move forward – we are keen to meet consumer needs as well as making sure that Auto Trader utilises advantages for users that new handsets may present in the future.

Do you see mobile as an important channel in the future?

Yes very, particularly as it becomes more integrated with desktop services and retail. For Auto Trader, mobile is integral for digital growth. Given the personal nature of the mobile, the growth in consumer mobile handset options and growth in mobile search and distribution methods beyond carrier networks the mobile is now a hugely valuable channel for presence and communication with customers.

Are there any plans to charge for the app, or monetise it in any way?

The App is free for users to download. We are keen to understand how consumers will use mobile in the car buying journey and aim to build a classified model that helps sellers get the maximum response for their advertising through the channel.

What kind of things do your users want from a mobile site or app?

We’ve been talking to our consumers for the last year to find out how they use mobile in the car buying process as well as understanding the interaction with

We’ve seen emerging behaviour in terms of accessing Auto Trader on the go. 

In Jul/Oct 40% of our mobile users accessed Auto Trader Mobile on a dealer forecourt to find out more information about a car. This January the percentage increased to 45% of users. 60% of our mobile users visit the site to research their next car purchase.

And we’ve also seen response…

47,000 calls were made to sellers from our mobile site in February alone. We’ve seen this skyrocket from last year and expect this to continue to grow. 

Over 4.5 million car adverts are viewed a month.

Search and discovery are key to Auto Trader’s success; the value of mobile is that this service is available to users throughout every step of the buying cycle. We aim to support car buyers and sellers to meet with ease and confidence.

Was it a challenge to keep it simple and usable for mobiles?

It’s certainly always a challenge to make something complex very simple! Auto Trader has over ten years’ digital experience online, throughout which we have tested and refined to make search as simple as possible.

Mobile was built on this knowledge base, taking the fundamentals and implementing what users need from Auto Trader when mobile. 

How long was the app in development for? What were the major challenges?

The app took six months to take from concept to completion. The key challenges were working out what value could be provided to users beyond to extend Auto Trader’s mobile search experience in a useful, fun and consistent way.

Judging by the App Store score at least, customer feedback on the app has been positive so far, but are there any issues or improvements you will be making?

We slightly underestimated the success that app could have for us, and had a teething problem that affected some of our users after a very successful launch. The great thing about the App Store is the feedback.

Our users are very positive with the concept of snap and search, and at the same time are very open with what they want and what we can improve on.