Orbiting the blogosphere

GM recruits Web loggers in hopes of influencing readers to consider vehicles

Kristen Hammond, right, of the blog "Mommy Needs A Cocktail" and Kelly Wickham, who writes the blog "Mocha Momma," meet inside the trunk of a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu at a General Motors event in Memphis, Tenn.
Kristen Hammond writes about her two young sons and sells T-shirts on her Web log, "Mommy Needs A Cocktail." She isn't anyone's idea of a gearhead.

But last fall, Chevrolet flew Hammond from her home near Washington to Memphis, Tenn., so she could test drive the redesigned 2008 Malibu. Chevrolet hoped she would blog about the trip, bringing the car to the attention of Generation X mothers like herself.

"General Motors understands we are living in a world where social media are extremely important," says Hammond, whose blog attracts 5,000 unique visitors a month. "They knew I could represent a demographic they were interested in. This was a way for them to open up their audience."

Hammond, who drives a 2001 Volvo S80, says the trip gave her "a totally different view" of GM, especially on environmental matters. In a post on her blog, she called the Malibu Hybrid "an affordable hybrid that isn't a Pious" — a dig at the segment-leading Toyota Prius.

As the reach of print advertising and broadcast commercials declines, GM is working with hundreds of bloggers to tout its vehicles to targeted consumers. GM has its own high-profile blogger: Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who writes an outspoken blog called "FastLane."

Other automakers, notably Ford and Volkswagen, are cultivating bloggers. But GM has penetrated the blogosphere more deeply than most other factories. GM declines to say what it spends on its blogging operation.

GM regularly invites nonautomotive bloggers to test drive its vehicles. Here are some of their posted comments.

"Mommy Needs A Cocktail"
On the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu: "It's pretty. Oh, we're all shallow here. Let's be honest. We are all tired of the 'family car' looking like the 'family car.' No worries here. I think I looked 'HOT' driving it. I would definitely allow my husband to accost me on the hood."

"Hormone-colored Days"
On the Malibu: "I was pleased with it, especially the smooth, quiet ride of the hybrid, but what do I know? I drive a 2000 Subaru with a steering wheel that vibrates so much I'm afraid it's going to come right off in my hands one of these days. Even so, I left Memphis confident that the new Malibu is worth considering if you're in the market for a sedan."

"The Bachelor Guy"
On the 2008 Saturn Sky Red Line: "A definite chick magnet, drop the top and you'll have no problem finding a riding partner who wants to feel the wind blowing through her hair. Or if you've already got someone, with just enough trunk space for a couple of overnight bags, you can take her on that trip to the country to see the leaves change she's been nagging you about. And actually enjoy the ride."

Influence peddlers

GM invites bloggers, automotive and nonautomotive, to global auto shows and on press trips once reserved for journalists. (Automotive News, like other publications, accepts automaker-funded travel to press events.)

Bloggers test drive new GM cars and trucks, visit company test tracks and talk to GM executives and engineers. GM buys ad space on some blogs.

Christopher Barger, GM's director of global communications technology, executes the blog strategy. He supervises five full-time employees who work with "hundreds" of bloggers. Barger says bloggers exert a huge influence on consumer opinion.

"Readers are paying more attention to individual bloggers, frankly, than they are to us as a source of credible information," Barger says. "It is our job to try to influence the influencers, not through advertising and marketing but through the relationships and affinities we can build."

Barger says GM works "across the spectrum" of blogs — automotive, environmental, entertainment, lifestyle. The automaker engages specific blogs based on the vehicle it wants to promote or the news it wants to spread.

The effort isn't limited to reaching young, tech-savvy consumers, Barger says. "I don't think it is fair to say it is a play for Gen X or Gen Y. Boomers and seniors are far more connected than people give them credit for."

Nor does GM merely focus on the most popular blogs, Barger says. The test of a blogger's influence, he says, is "how often people come back commenting on what you have written or how often people are linking to you."

Calling all laddies

Eric Rogell's blog, "The Bachelor Guy," attracts 250,000 to 300,000 readers a month, mostly young men. The blog features posts such as "5 Summer Sex Positions That Could Get You Hospitalized. Or Arrested." He has attended four GM events.

"GM is being very progressive in recognizing that bloggers have loyal and strong audiences," says Rogell, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and drives a 2006 Lexus IS 250.

Rogell says he was skeptical when Buick invited him to a press event in New York last month for the Lucerne sedan. He invented a jocular slogan for the car: "For People Who'd Rather Not Draw Attention to Themselves."

But he wrote in a blog post after the event: "Turns out the people at Buick might be just as bored with the cars, and as distressed the nameplate has lost its luxury luster, as the rest of us. Because it looks like they are finally doing something about it."

Kim Moldofsky, 39, writes a mom blog called "Hormone-colored Days." After she test drove the Malibu at the same event Hammond attended, she says she was impressed, but not sold.

"It's going to take more than a sleek design, good price point and better fuel efficiency to get us to go domestic," Moldofsky wrote on her blog. "We want to see an established track record — something that indicates a high level of reliability."

Moldofsky, who lives in suburban Chicago, drives a 2000 Subaru Outback. She says blogs such as hers may not determine other consumers' vehicle buying decisions, but do affect them. She declined to estimate her blog's readership.

"I spend a lot more time reading blogs than I do reading newspapers or watching TV," Moldofsky says. "I would like to hear mothers or fathers speak. I do consider the opinions of other parents."

Closing the gap

Barger says GM uses its contacts with bloggers to address what he calls the perception gap between the quality and performance of GM vehicles and consumer attitudes.

"This outreach does have an impact on what people think," he says. "If bloggers are driving and coming in and talking to people who make the battery packs, they see it for themselves. It is not necessarily an attempt to change GM's image. It is an attempt to give access and let you make up your own mind."

GM also monitors blogs as a "customer service tool" to spot trends and handle complaints, Barger says. "Blogs are a focus group writ large," he says. "Why wouldn't you listen and pay attention and incorporate some of that feedback?"

GM is broadening its engagement with bloggers and their readers, Barger says. "It is an effective tool in connecting with the community," he says. "It is a touch point for us." 

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