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Automakers put bloggers in the driver's seat

Looking for a viral 'buzz,' they turn everyday Web writers into auto reviewers.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2008

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich. About five years ago, reviews in auto magazines could largely determine the fate of a newly released car. Now, automakers are reaching out to bloggers and Web media to create more personal reviews.

Kiichiro Sato/AP

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Like most bloggers, Kim Moldofsky is low-key, writing about parenting issues from her basement after she tucks her children into bed. That fact made it all the more surprising when General Motors asked to fly her to Memphis, Tenn., from her home outside of Chicago to review their new Chevy Malibu for the Chicago Moms Blog.

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"I have no expertise in cars, other than that I've been driving since I was a teenager," explains Mrs. Moldofsky, and that's precisely why GM wanted her.

Just five years ago, reviews in premier auto magazines could largely determine the fate of a newly released car. But with the rise in social media, those days may be fading. Now, automakers are reaching out to bloggers and Web media to create more personal reviews with vast viral marketing potential.

"The auto magazines play an important role, but they're definitely not the only influencers in the market the way they used to be," says Bill Stephenson, who manages all automotive clients for the Nielsen Co. and monitors online buzz.

When it comes to buying a car, only 4 percent of consumers have posted user-generated content, while another 18 percent have viewed it, says an August 2007 repor˚t from Forrester, a market-research company in Cambridge, Mass. While that number may seem relatively small, insiders say they represent an increasingly significant portion of the market. Consider that 37 percent of all online users in the United States trust magazine reviews and 31 percent trust newspaper reviews, compared with the 34 percent who trust online owner/enthusiast forums and 56 percent who trust independent car websites such as Edmunds.com.

"We're recognizing that audiences are both acquiring information and accepting information in different ways than they used to," says Christopher Barger, director of global communications technology for General Motors.

Just nine months ago, GM hired Mr. Barger to head its newly formed social media outreach efforts.

Virtually every car company has taken to working with bloggers and Web media, but the medium is new enough for them that, by and large, most automakers are still shooting from the hip when it comes to social-media strategies. A common tactic has become outfitting a blogger with a slick new car for a short time, say a week, and allowing her to write about it on her website, whether the feedback is good or bad. But chances are good that something positive may come of it.

"It is almost statistically impossible to hate a brand-new car with a full tank of gas that you've driven for one week," says Ms. Moldofsky.

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