February 23, 2015 12:00 AM
Five influencers changing the auto industry today
The age of social media is upon the auto industry.
The eloquence of a beautiful picture or carefully chosen words when shared with a community can exert a powerful influence.
Influencers are proliferating in the auto world, bringing change in myriad ways.
Automotive News spoke with a handful of them to learn what they’re thinking and the stories they’re sharing with their fans.
|KEVIN LU||JODY DEVERE||LYNN PONDER||KEVIN FRYE||RAUL ALVAREZ|
Instagram handle: sweatengine
He influences: Fans who follow his striking photos on Instagram
She influences: Women who want automotive advice
Followers: 14,200 on Twitter
webcitygirls.com, @ponderful on Twitter
She influences: Hispanics interested in celebrities, fashion and gossip
Followers: About 23,000 on combined social media sites
Jeff Wyler Automotive Family director of eCommerce
Twitter handle @kevinfrye1
He influences: Auto dealership and automotive eCommerce professionals
Followers: 1,677 on Twitter
Loyaltoyota on Facebook or loyaltoyota.tumblr.com
He influences: Fans of Toyota brand
Followers: 6,275 likes on Facebook
Road trip led to a new life on Instagram
A couple of years ago, Kevin Lu got bored with his career as a biomechanical engineer designing artificial knees and hips. So he quit in 2013 and joined a friend for a road trip around the United States.
On the journey, Lu took hundreds of photos and posted them on the social media photo site Instagram. He began to accumulate followers.
“It started snowballing,” says Lu, in something of an understatement. Today, he has 181,000 Instagram followers and makes a living as a freelancer posting his Instagram photos. Clients such as General Motors, Coach and Apple like to reach his audience, and they like how he tells stories with pictures.
VIEWS FROM DETROIT Instagram blogger Kevin Lu took these pictures while in Detroit. In the middle, he took a picture in GM’s Warren Transmission plant, where the next generation Chevrolet Volt transmission will be made.
In January, Lu, 33, attended the Detroit auto show with two other Instagram bloggers to document the launch of the redesigned Chevrolet Volt.
“They came to Detroit as guests of Chevrolet to help us tell our electrification story,” said Craig Daitch, director of social media for Chevrolet.
Says Lu: “I get hired because I’m a social influencer. I take photos. They reached out and said, ‘Come to the auto show and see our new car.’”
Lu won’t agree to attend a company-paid trip unless he’s guaranteed creative freedom. Daitch says Chevy probably would have taken mostly pictures of the Volt itself. But Lu and the two other Instagram bloggers told the story in an entirely different way.
“I figure if people want to see cars, it’s not that hard to find cars,” which is why Lu didn’t concentrate on cars alone during his trip to Detroit.
“I kind of want to get into more behind-the-scenes stuff people don’t experience firsthand. This way, I can give people a more personal, intimate view of what’s going on. It’s a cool way to photograph.”
Says Daitch: “21,000 people directly engaged with those photos in terms of liking or commenting, but 1.1 million viewed the photos.”
Lu says life has changed a lot since he found his outlet on Instagram: “As an engineer, I never went anywhere, never met anyone, never saw anything.” Lu gets to see plenty, and through his camera lens, 181,000 followers get a chance to see the world through his eyes.
Helping women navigate the auto world
The first thing you need to know is that the woman behind the AskPatty.com “automotive advice for women” website is actually not named Patty. She is Jody DeVere, 59, a native Southern Californian and serial entrepreneur.
Patty is the cheery, confident-looking cartoon character that pops up at the top of the Web page holding a red car in her hand. With her knowing look, she seems to be telling women they are not second-class citizens in the often male-dominated automotive marketplace, whether in the showroom, service department or job market.
DeVere, a former employee of Packard Bell, once sold semiconductors, software and peripherals.
The purpose of AskPatty.com, launched in 2006 and headquartered in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is to help women navigate the sometimes-perilous shoals of the world of automotive commerce. AskPatty.com dispenses advice to women on topics such as how to buy cars, how to brave the dealership service department and how to find a career in the industry.
“I still think the automotive industry, being testosterone-driven, sometimes misses the mark terribly in how they go to market,” says DeVere. “When a bunch of guys sit around and figure out how to market to women, it doesn’t go so well.”
AskPatty.com runs a trademarked program called the Certified Female Friendly network of automotive retailers designed to help dealers, tire stores and other auto retail businesses attract and keep female customers.
DeVere also was instrumental in launching the Women’s Automotive Speakers Bureau featuring a roster of female experts ready to speak on any automotive topic.
At AskPatty.com, the river of advice runs two ways. The site helps women improve their automotive knowledge and helps carmakers, manufacturers, dealers and other businesses learn how to reach women.
“We have influenced a lot of automakers to change their evil ways with women,” she says with a laugh. “Women influence up to 80 percent of car-buying decisions. About 80 percent of visits to dealership service lanes are women.”
She has no patience with “caveman attitudes” of men who undervalue the importance of women in the industry.
“In 2012, women for the first time had more driver’s licenses than men in the U.S. More young women are getting degrees … at three times the rate of guys. These men are behind the times.”
How Ponder’s pink wig helps sell cars
Lynn Ponder is not a difficult person to pick out at a celebrity event such as the Latin Grammy Awards. She’s the friendly, smiling woman standing by the red carpet wearing a pink wig. Or if she’s not actually wearing the wig, she’ll be surrounded by a team of young women wearing pink wigs.
Ponder, who would not give her age, is a native of Puerto Rico and the founder of webcitygirls. com, a Hispanic-oriented entertainment-social media website. If there’s a social event with interest for Hispanics, Ponder and her team at webcitygirls.com will be hovering near the red carpet, tweeting like mad in either English or Spanish.
WEBCITYGIRLS Ponder's platform.
“Webcitygirls is a social media, public relations, interactive platform supporting brands, celebrities and causes,” says Ponder, a cheery, extroverted woman who ran a TV advertising production company before she moved to the digital world full time in 2009.
Several years ago, Ponder hooked up with Ford Motor Co. because she admired what she sees as the company’s forward-thinking social media approach.
“They have amazing outreaches to the Latino community. I am a Latina,” says Ponder, who has a gift for walking into a room and immediately making friends. “My platform speaks to Latinos. My platform speaks to the other generation that are Latinos but are totally Americanized. Ford covers that multicultural market. We are a great channel to spread their message of safety and all the things they do for the community.”
You’re not likely to hear a negative tweet from Ponder about Ford or other brands she represents. “We always speak from a positive point of view,” she says.
For Ford, webcitygirls offers an opportunity to reach about 23,000 followers, about 70 percent of whom are women and more than half Latino.
Alvaro Cabal, Ford head of multicultural communications, says Ponder is very media savvy: “She presents the Ford products in a way that engages her audience that is not in your face. That millennial audience does not like to be sold. They like to be presented. Instead of ‘buy it now, buy it here,’ she presents her own messaging. Some people just want to be presented with opportunities.”
But does an influencer like Ponder really help Ford sell cars?
“Definitely,” says Cabal. In fact, Ponder says her followers contact her seeking advice on connecting with a Ford dealer.
Asked why she got started wearing a pink wig, now the brand signature of webcitygirls, Ponder says it all has to do with standing out when you’re next to the red carpet: “We needed something because all the press is dressed in black. But everybody wanted to talk to those girls in pink wigs. We looked good. We looked hot. And besides, how is Enrique Iglesias going to recognize me?”
Key to social media success:
Remember the magic word
Kevin Frye believes many car dealers approach social media with misguided expectations of what it can accomplish for them.
“The answer in how to do it right lies in its name, that first word, ‘social.’ It’s a social platform, not necessarily a selling platform,” says Frye, 48, eCommerce director for the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family group in Cincinnati. “When one of your friends calls you up and asks you to dinner, and a couple of minutes later, they say they want to talk to you about this opportunity called Amway, your mind changes.”
Back in October, Frye took to Facebook to take Edmunds.com to task for a YouTube ad campaign (above) lampooning auto dealers over haggling. The discussion he launched helped Edmunds rethink and withdraw its campaign.
More than a decade ago, Frye saw the possibilities in Internet commerce.
“We were doing it back when it was MySpace,” he says. “We’ve had plenty of black eyes and bloody noses.”
Regarding that magic word “social,” Frye keeps a steady stream of automotive-related posts on his Twitter and Facebook pages, but he also supervises the social media content for the 15-dealership Wyler Family group and its individual stores. He believes it’s important to personalize the content.
The face of the group is CEO Jeff Wyler, who has his own Facebook page with 5,000 friends. Frye and his team help Wyler keep his page lively with quotes from famous people — Marcus Aurelius, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain were in recent posts.
“We have something that’s unique and a differentiator for us. Jeff Wyler is a living person. He has run his own business since 1973. We have a Jeff Wyler Facebook account. They love the fact they can connect directly with Jeff Wyler there. They will friend him. It’s a great communication point.”
On the mini biography he has on his Twitter page, Frye describes himself simply: “Agent of positive change!”
Though he’s a firm believer in social media and digital commerce, Frye believes the physical dealership has not lost its relevance.
“I think you’re going to see that more and more of the car-shopping experience will happen online. You’ll see it become more transactional. The next step will be putting deposits online. But I think for a while, you’ll see people still visiting dealerships. We play a very important role in the physical process.”
Fan platform began with crisis
Raul Alvarez of West New York, N.J., has owned just two Toyotas in his life, and he didn’t buy his first one until 2009. In fact, he doesn’t even own a car at the moment. He owned and loved Hondas for many years and works as a client relations rep at a Mercedes-Benz dealership near New York City. So it’s a little surprising that Alvarez, 37, is responsible for a major Toyota fan platform: loyaltoyota.
Alvarez decided to take to social media with his Toyota loyalty story in February 2010, when Toyota President Akio Toyoda testified before Congress in the midst of Toyota’s mushrooming unintended-acceleration crisis. Watching the heat Toyoda was taking, Alvarez got mad.
“The day I decided to launch loyaltoyota was when Akio Toyoda was being grilled on TV. This assumption of guilt really bothered me. I just found it was so disrespectful,” says Alvarez, who says his mother lived in Japan for a couple of years and taught him to admire Japanese culture.
So he started his loyaltoyota blog on the Tumblr site that became a forum for happy owners to talk about their love for their trusty Toyotas — Corollas that had logged a million miles — a place for all those who had none of the problems that were getting all the negative publicity.
Once the unintended-acceleration issue faded, Alvarez just kept on posting on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to name a few.
When he lost his job at BlackBerry in 2013, he decided to fulfill a dream: to drive across the United States. Driving his Prius Plug-in, Alvarez was going to stop at Toyota facilities including the Georgetown, Ky., plant; Ann Arbor, Mich., technical center; San Antonio truck plant; the Calty Design Research facility in Newport Beach, Calif.; and Toyota’s U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif., taking pictures and posting them @loyaltoyota all the way.
But fate intervened when Alvarez’s Prius got T-boned in a crash and totaled. He contacted Toyota to say he still hoped to do the trip and would let officials know what vehicle he’d be driving. A few days later, Toyota called back and offered to let him drive a new Camry SE. So Alvarez got to visit all the places he’d planned — but the trip wasn’t all Toyota. Alvarez got to see places he had dreamed of, including Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree national parks, memories he’ll cherish through the photos he posted.
Alissa Moceri, social media strategist for Toyota brand, said in a statement, that Alvarez “has established a community for like-minded Toyota fans.”
“This is the type of advocacy money can’t buy.”
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