Early in the morning of Oct. 22, Kevin Frye was checking his social media feeds when he noticed a YouTube ad posted by Edmunds.com spoofing the practice of auto dealers haggling with customers.
"I caught that Edmunds campaign right as it launched," says Frye, eCommerce director of the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family dealership group in Cincinnati. The ad, titled "Absurdity of Haggling," showed a grocery clerk trying to gouge shoppers on items such as bread and squash.
Frye posted an immediate response on his Facebook page: "Nice Job by Edmunds demonizing dealers in the most recent ad campaign. Now let me ask you this -- WHO initiates haggling during the car buying process, the customer or the dealer?"
What happened next showed how an individual with social-media savvy can launch a discussion online that quickly influences industry actions.
"It started steamrolling within a few hours, and within 24 hours, [Edmunds] had pulled the whole thing," recalls Frye. Edmunds did defend the campaign briefly but in the end apologized for offending dealers.
Influencers such as Frye are a new force in the auto industry, one carmakers, dealers and others are struggling to get their arms around.
Quite often, influencers are not "car people." Nor do they occupy traditional positions of power.
But by knowing their audiences, influencers can quickly gain the same credibility with them as friends or neutral third parties. They can deliver messages more effectively than conventional media: Stoke excitement about a new vehicle, bring fans of a brand or a cause together, make a complaint, dish out praise, dispense shopping advice or draw attention to a safety issue.
Craig Watkins, professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a new book The Young & the Digital, says the rapid proliferation of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets dramatically increased the reach of influencers.
Influencers can share their opinions -- "any time, anywhere" -- through such devices, Watkins says. And they can broadcast photos and videos as well as words.