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

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    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.
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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.

"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.

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"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.

While most car companies that have tried such a program are enthused about the initial results, it's still too early for most to determine how such efforts impact sales. For now, it's clear that reaching out to forums such as mommy and daddy blogs creates a new space for more personal reviews that speak to people who may not know what a torque differential is, but know what they need when it comes to putting two baby seats in the back.

"Automotive reviews are very specific, you know, performance, package, drive and handling," says Whitney Drake, a Ford spokeswoman.

Just this summer Ford began inviting select bloggers to test drive their vehicles for a period of time and review them in their blogs. Ms. Drake says the reviews are "more of an experiential write-up or entry in their blog. It's not necessarily about comparing it to x, y, or z; it's more about what they did with it and how they used it and how it worked or didn't work."

Eileen Ogintz, creator of the Taking the Kids, a blog about traveling with children, says she looked at the Ford she test drove during a road trip to New Mexico completely differently from a traditional reviewer.

"It wasn't so much like I was looking at it technically, like someone who reports on cars all the time would," explains Mrs. Ogintz. "It was more like as a family travel expert, how did this car shape up, and what could a family do so that the kids aren't killing each other by the time that you get where you're going."

There's no science to how the car companies choose bloggers. Sometimes they prefer blogs with a large following. But they'll also work with small, respected sites. Ogintz's blog, for example, averages only about 15,000 hits a month.

Volkswagen, which does not loan cars to bloggers for test drives, has included select Web media members at new product events. The blogosphere remains "first, a listening post for [the company] and, second, as a medium or device by which we can state our position," explains Keith Price, public relations manager at Volkswagen.

Volkswagen Vortex, a website with no affiliation to the manufacturer, is a prime place for enthusiasts of the German cars to trade information and tips about the brand.

For Volkswagen officials, though, it's the perfect place to monitor the pulse of their target audience and interact with the community. Mr. Price frequents the page, and often contributes to user forums to clear up misconceptions or answer tricky questions. For example, when a number of people complained that they couldn't get a Passat with a manual transmission in the US, Price posted an explainer on how to special order them at US dealerships.

"This isn't anything that we cooked up and thought 'Boy, here's how we can harness this.' It just kind of organically and naturally happened," says Price. "Volkswagen is a pretty youthful brand that attracts a youthful audience, and I think the onus is on us to be listening and to jump in on that because our target audience expects us to."

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