The Chevrolet Volt's chief engineer had this job on Tuesday: Type 140-character answers to questions from anyone who had them.
Andrew Farah spent 40 minutes answering questions about the Volt on Twitter, a social media site that General Motors joined about a year ago. Twitter allows users -- from the guy next door to President Barack Obama -- to give 140-character news tidbits about their lives.
Using Twitter is an example of how automakers can reach the growing number of prospective car buyers who get information from personal blogs and social media sites, according to a study introduced today at the Chicago Auto Show by market research firm J.D. Power and Associates.
Before car buyers enter the market, they have formed opinions about auto brands, and most of them say they trust personal blogs from consumers more than professional blogs, said Gene Cameron, J.D. Power's vice president of media solutions.
So automakers need to give personal bloggers the same attention they gave auto columnists during the print media age, Cameron said. Those thousands of bloggers, not professional writers, shape consumer opinion.
"The old media model was you take the reviewers of Car and Driver and take them on a test drive," Cameron said. "You need to figure out a way to communicate to these bloggers. And it's going to take more than putting them in a test drive."
Automakers need to find ways to answer bloggers' concerns to help shape the messages they put out -- just as GM used Farah to answer questions via Twitter, Cameron said.
J.D. Power's data tell automakers which Web sites have the highest concentration of prospective buyers. Sites such as everydayhealth.com, coupons.com, classmates.com and DVD site columbiahouse.com can reach much of the audience of prospective buyers. Those sites have prospective buyers as a large percentage of their audience.
Of the blogs that prospective buyers visited, personal blogs hosted by blogspot.com or blogger.com were more popular destinations than professional blogs such as huffingtonpost.com, tmz.com or automakers' own attempts at blogs. At least 35 percent of prospective buyers visited personal blogs, J.D. Power says.
To compile its list, J.D. Power combined its database of new car purchasers from the past two years with online behavior data compiled by Compete Inc. More than 200,000 of the buyers had online behavior data on record, so J.D. Power was able to see which sites they routinely visited.
"If the market's going to come back like we all hope, there need to be messages to people to consider buying a car again," Cameron said. "You want to get on the consideration list of new-vehicle buyers, and that consideration list is formed before people actually start shopping for a car."
To shape bloggers' messages, companies can address postings on blogs, Cameron said. But, he said, companies must do so transparently, never trying to hide that the message is from an automaker.
J.D. Power plans to release the study's full data March 3 and update it monthly after that.