At Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce celebration, Rick Ruskin, who heads marketing and product management for General Motors’ OnStar service, sits in a parked Buick that's serving as a makeshift conference room. He points to his phone, where there are offers from Best Buy and Audiobooks.com.
“These two spots here are like Google AdWords, where people are bidding on you, at your location, at a particular time, looking for a particular geographic or psychographic profile,” he said.
Since when would GM offer anything even resembling an ad platform? Since this week, apparently.
Ruskin is describing the proprietary mobile media platform the auto manufacturer quietly introduced after releasing the OnStar AtYourService commerce platform Tuesday.
Some background is necessary. OnStar is a GM-operated subscription service that provides in-vehicle navigation and customer support. Each new GM vehicle – think Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac, among others – is equipped with OnStar as a standard feature.
Recently, OnStar released the mobile app RemoteLink, which lets users perform OnStar functions from their handsets without phoning the contact center. On Tuesday, GM rolled out AtYourService (originally teased in January at CES), designed to push relevant offers to drivers using RemoteLink.
Mark Lloyd, consumer online officer at OnStar, is wary when hearing AtYourService described as an ad platform.
“I don’t want it construed as: Ad! Ad! Ad! Ad!” he said. “That’s not the point. The point is to give value.”
Here’s an ideal scenario: A family driving an SUV needs directions to its hotel. OnStar provides those directions, and it also serves offers from nearby family restaurants.
The GM subsidiary isn’t quite there yet, and it’s taking an iterative approach toward enhancing the platform, both for drivers (i.e., ensuring there’s an opt-in and enabling consumers to control what data they provide) and prospective marketers.
“We’re beginning to work very directly with media agencies,” Lloyd said. “They’re the ones that already have digital spend.”
That includes GM’s agency Carat, which is consulting. For instance, it advised OnStar on how to serve offers as simply as possible and helped the auto manufacturer ensure that its contract agreements around ad rates adhere to industry standards.
“Now that we have media that people can buy, the IAB has standards people were used to seeing, in the terms of an agreement,” said Ruskin.
So far, this media is direct-sold, but GM is considering ways to offer this function programmatically.
“The pro is that we’ll be able to fill more media with more and different partners,” Ruskin said.
One challenge, however, is that every message showing up on an OnStar system must be approved by OnStar.
“From a con standpoint, that ups the need for more people on our side to look through everything,” Ruskin said. “Carat, or whoever might be the programmatic partner, will know that.”
More immediately, OnStar is trying to get merchants into the driver's seat. It currently works with aggregators like Priceline, RetailMeNot and Entertainment Book, which provide an expansive network at launch. But OnStar really wants to connect directly with merchant partners, which is a big reason why GM is at the Dreamforce showroom.
“We’re focused on six individual categories,” Ruskin said. “Dining, hotels, retail, parking, fuel and our own dealers. Think of the big players that are ready in each category. Those are the ones we’re going after on a one-to-one basis.”
And there’s a lot OnStar feels it can offer advertisers. It’s already created a portal where marketers can build out their campaigns, plugging in the start date, end date, location and various segmentation parameters, including gender, age and marital status.
It also enables targeting related to car type. This, Ruskin said, is where psychographics kick in. Someone in a large pickup might work in construction, with very different needs than someone driving a small pickup, who perhaps does light construction as a hobby.
“If you’re in a Corvette, maybe we won’t show the family ads, because there are only two people in the car,” Lloyd added. “But if you’re in a minivan, a family-oriented dinner offer might be appropriate.”
It’s a system designed to be familiar to the media-buying community.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Ruskin said. “We looked at what everybody else is doing. What makes sense for our potential customers?”
OnStar wants to make it as easy as possible to insert offers into its system. Messaging drivers through in-vehicle systems is still unconventional, and different auto manufacturers have different ways of enabling it, such that it can be expensive and exasperating for advertisers.
“We know that, if we can make it easier for the merchants and the agencies to get the content to us, it’ll go a lot faster,” Lloyd said. “It you want to reach all 3 million of our cars, you can just come to our portal. It makes it much easier and quicker for our partners to get involved, as opposed to the handcraft thing.”