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THE DAY AHEAD: Autoweb hopes PR ploy works twice

Will the same stupid press release ploy work on investors twice? Autoweb.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AWEB) sure hopes so.

In the Net's version of my-useless-statistic-is-bigger-than-yours, Autoweb.com announced this morning that its consumers now drive more than $10 billion in new and used car sales a year, or $26 million per day. If you do the math, Autoweb.com has more than $1.08 million in sales requests an hour.

Last week, Autobytel.com (Nasdaq: ABTL) said it drove $9 billion in sales a year. That equates to $24 million a day, or $1 million an hour. Both companies (comparison chart) collect a fee to refer consumers to auto dealers in their area. Sales requests don't translate directly into revenue.



Autoweb: Better than Autobytel?



Armed with the latest sales request data, analysts were quoted saying Autobytel's stats show it is the leader.

But Autoweb's stats say something different. Autoweb appears to be the leader in not-so-meaningful statistics. The big question is whether Autoweb's press release will drive shares.

Investors went bonkers and pushed Autobytel shares up nearly 50 percent. As per Autobytel's plan, many in the financial press dropped "sales requests" and replaced it with "sales." If you read the release, you would discover that Autobytel's $24 million in sales requests doesn't mean much. The stats don't mean much for Autoweb either, but if "sales" replace "sales requests" in headlines we could see a move.

Here's an example of how these sales requests statistics don't amount too much. When Autobytel and Autoweb went public just days apart, ZDII tested both services. We went to the Autobytel and Autoweb sites to get a price quote on a Subaru Forester. So our little test accounted for roughly $20,000 in "sales requests" for both companies.

Keep in mind that we never bought the Forrester and had no plans for a purchase, but did discover that Autoweb got back to us about three days faster than Autobytel.

We may have contributed to the sales request statistics, but there's a big difference between getting information and actually generating revenue.

Don't fall for it twice.

However, there may be some other things to drive Autoweb shares. Autoweb said other automotive-commerce sales jumped more than 100 percent from the beginning of the year. Autoweb gets 70 percent of its sales from auto dealer referrals, but is branching out into consumer to consumer sales, insurance, financing, accessories and extended warranties. That 100 percent jump is from a base of zero, but who's going to complain?

Autoweb still has Autobytel on its heels in their high stakes race. Autoweb beat Autobytel to the public markets by almost a week. As a result, Autoweb got the big run-up and Autobytel has been a has-been even though both are about flat with their offering prices. Prior to their respective initial public offerings, Autobytel was seen as the leader.

Autobytel's sales request press release evened the score slightly. Now Autoweb is playing catch-up and may do well with some press of its own. It's a fun battle once you toss aside the meaningless press releases.