Videos of VW road trips get clicks, win customers
Matthew Welch, owner of Auburn Volkswagen in Auburn, Wash., was sick of hearing all the talk about hybrids in his green-minded suburb of Seattle.
In 2008, with gasoline prices reaching record levels, Welch wanted to call attention to one of Volkswagen's fuel-sipping diesels that was about to go on sale. So he hired a video production crew and drove from the dealership to San Francisco with a 2008 Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid and a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI.
Refueling was forbidden. The Prius ran out of gas in Redding, Calif., after 549 miles, but the Jetta, with its larger fuel tank, traveled the full 733 miles to the San Francisco area. Welch says it ended up with slightly better fuel economy: 50.5 mpg, compared with 48.2 mpg for the Prius.
The video went viral.
Projects like that "TDI Challenge" proved so successful that Welch decided to spend his marketing money on digital marketing rather than conventional advertising. Web site visits have tripled since 2008, and the number of new Volkswagens sold has risen by more than 40 percent, from 709 in 2008 to more than 1,000 in 2012.
"If you would have told me five years ago that my marketing budget for 2012 would be 75 percent digital, I would have said 'no way,'" says Welch, who eliminated the dealership's radio and newspaper budgets but still advertises on TV.
During the videos that resulted from the first trip in 2008, posted on YouTube.com, Welch takes frequent shots at the Prius. The hybrid bore stickers during the trip that read: "The Jetta TDI gets better MPG than this car."
The project cost $13,000, and it wasn't profit that motivated Welch.
"No one had heard of it compared to the Prius," he said when asked why he took the trek with the Jetta.
Matthew Welch uses videos to get across short, punchy messages about the high fuel economy of the Volkswagens he sells.
Views, clicks, sales
It was the right time to draw attention to the Jetta TDI, and it paid off.
Welch got phone calls from radio hosts and landed interviews with local news outlets as he drove down the Pacific coast with his crew.
Last year Welch reprised the trip with a pair of Passat TDIs at a cost of $14,000. Volkswagen liked the idea so much that it chipped in about half the cost.
"We thought it would get enough hits and draw enough attention to the brand and to the store that it was something we felt we could piggyback on," said Werner Mersch, director of Volkswagen's Western region.
In 2012 Auburn Volkswagen tripled its video spending to about $50,000 and made dozens of videos. Some have nothing to do with the dealership, telling the stories of local nonprofits to which the dealership donates, or documenting the most popular gatherings of car enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest.
"We're not looking for a direct return on sales, but what it does do is cause activity on the Web site to shoot up," Welch says.
Hits have increased from 3,000 or 4,000 per month to 11,000 per month since the first trek. Welch said 35 percent of those visitors make phone calls to the dealership, according to data he gets from Cobalt, a service from ADP Dealer Services Inc.
Welch said the hardest part of the process was getting over his anxiety about making viral videos. The advertising firm that did the dealership's TV commercials had a creative director who was active in social media campaigns for big companies such as Microsoft, and he was able to help.
The dealership also learned to keep the videos brief -- less than two minutes -- so viewers wouldn't lose focus and so they would continue to Auburn's Web site.
"As long as we keep the videos short and relevant, we're serving up just what the customer is asking for,'' Welch said.
True to the brand
Welch, who bought into the dealership during a six-year transition period and became outright owner in 2011, says the idea for the first trek came naturally because he grew up driving Volkswagens.
His first car was his mother's hand-me-down 1969 Beetle. His second was a 1976 Rabbit. He remained loyal when the brand fell upon hard times in the United States.
Volkswagen sales dwindled in the 1980s, and Welch remembers the challenge of trying to sell them when he started working at a different dealership, in 1992.
"I was selling them when no one wanted to," he said. "But in '93 it all started to turn around with the Jetta."
Many of the videos that Welch commissioned this year focus on car enthusiasts, often at gatherings of Volkswagen owners.
Welch says the videos play particularly well to Volkswagen's target market and the dealership's clientele in Seattle, home to legions of young tech-savvy white-collar workers who care about the environment.
The videos often are backed by an electronic music soundtrack. John Polnik, who runs the social media firm Interpolnik and works with Welch on the videos, says he trusts his young video producers to give the segments a youthful feel.
It's a break from the ordinary advertising model, says Polnik. Rather than explaining why people should buy a product or visit a store, the videos focus on customers and community groups. They just have Auburn Volkswagen's logo at the beginning or end.
This is the type of content that people will share on social media Web sites "because they don't feel that they're being sold," Polnik says.
"If you make a commercial, very few people are going to share it on their Facebook page, or their Twitter feed," he added.
But making videos about car enthusiasts "buys goodwill, and it spreads the brand all over the place, like wildfire. It's fantastic."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.