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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.

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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.

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"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."