By on January 11, 2012

We used to have a column named Ur-Turn where we did published reader views “as a showcase for the diverse perspectives of TTAC’s readers.” Here is a truly diverse one, and the return of Ur-Turn. It comes from our reader Chris DeMorro. As Jack Baruth so eloquently had put I,.General Motors and Ford both spent obscene amounts of money to fly social media influencers to Detroit from all over the world.” Chris is one of them. Chris was at a couple of these events before, and as an experienced influencer, he is well qualified to write about them.

Full Disclosure: I am one of the 146 “social influencers” flown out by Ford to NAIAS the past few days. It was my third such event in a year, having been flown out to last year’s NAIAS show, and the “Forward with Ford” technology conference last summer. I have also been a Ford fan my whole life.

So I’m off to a great, totally un-biased start.

I am a freelance writer and editor, and as Derek Kreindler so eloquently points out, one among many recent college graduates with little job stability and no benefits. For what it’s worth though, I like both of my writing gigs, and I also liked “the red one” among GM’s Gen Y concept cars.

Regarding Jack’s concerns about “buying influence,” I share them. I’ve met plenty of people at these events who had no idea why they were there, including fitness writers, bicyclists who don’t own cars, and a crazy cat lady. What made her crazy was the cardboard cat cutout she brought along to take pictures of next to the cars. I’m not making this up.

The fact is though, the only event Ford “herded” us to was the 2013 Ford Fusion unveiling. After that, we had six and a half hours of free reign around the whole show. I visited many other press conferences, took lots of pictures, and talked to anyone who would have me. I didn’t have any North Korean-esque minder watching my every tweet or blog post. There were plenty of PR people on hand to answer questions, but we also had a chance to talk to higher ups one on one.

For the most part though, Ford left us to our own devices.

What Ford really did, in my eyes, was bring a bunch of bloggers to Detroit and give them the full auto journalist experience. Ford paid for our flight, hotel, food, and transportation, which in my experience is no different from any major new car review or auto show where the automaker flies “real” auto journalists out to “experience” the car (yes, I’ve done this as well.)

For most of these “influencers,” it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that much of the automotive journalism industry enjoys in a regular basis. The only difference I noticed is the way the bloggers treat the automakers, asking questions sometimes unrelated to cars at all, but important to them, and their readers. Issues like sustainable materials, fair worker wages, and Ford’s role in public transportation. You may not care about that, but other people do, and not everyone was happy with the answer Ford gave them. But these are questions you won’t hear from Car & Driver, or even TTAC.

The most positive thing I took away from the whole experience is that, while there were more than a few people sucking up the hype for all its worth, it also gave a bunch of industry outsiders a look at how the auto writing industry really works. Maybe that will inspire a few of them to deliver more honest, less paid-for opinions. Maybe not.

But I do know that more than a few of these “social media influencers” left saying “Huh, so that’s how it works…”

 

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45 Comments on “Ur-Turn: The Truth About Social Media Influencers...”


  • avatar
    86er

    “Game Changer” wasn’t uttered once…

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    I heard Marianne Moore was there asking about the new Utopian Turtletop Ford just unveiled. She claimed that she was also a social media influencer, circa 1949.

  • avatar
    ellomdian

    The thing I keep coming back to in my head – how much does it cost to pamper a hundred and some odd psudo-journos in the vain hope they will should “Ford Ford FORD” to their respective audiences, vs. how much does it cost to build a real transmission that doesn’t result in a ton of negative press online from people that are already Ford fans?

    God forbid you build a good product for a fair price that people wanted to buy. Nope, easier to group-think the design, focus-group the marketing, new-media the advertising, and credit-game the sales.

    • 0 avatar
      jeanpierresarti

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. Then again one of life’s greatest oxymorons is that common sense does not seem to be so common…

    • 0 avatar
      ComfortablyNumb

      That’s a false dichotomy. Product development and marketing are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you need to be good at both to be truly successful.

      Also, a few hundred G’s to schmooz the media pales in comparison to the cost of product development.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        a few hundred G’s to schmooz the media pales in comparison to the cost of product development.

        These days, a few hundred grand will pay for the first three seconds of a 30-second ad slot for the Super Bowl. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203899504577130940265401370.html And that doesn’t include the several million dollars that it could cost to produce the ad that goes into that slot.

        This seems cheap in comparison. I’m not sure if it works, but from the automakers’ perspective, it’s probably worth giving it a shot.

      • 0 avatar
        gslippy

        You’re right. I’m sure it takes several hundred million dollars to develop a new transmission. Spending a pittance on journalists to help tell about its virtues is money well-spent.

    • 0 avatar
      Fusion

      I hardly doubt Ford paid much more than 100k for this. Flight tickets for 150 people (mostly domestic), hotel rooms and a bit of food and the use of lounges that were there anyway. Everything booked with corporate rates, etc.

      Thats not much when looking at how much manufacturers are paying for the Auto show itself. Just for comparison – The Audi booth at the Frankfurt IAA was reported to cost somewhere along 10-15 million Euro. And even relatively simple stands like at NAIAS will still set you back a lot more than catering to a few bloggers for a day or two.

      And developing anything for this kind of money – forget it. This kind of money will maybe pay for a couple of prototypes, or the salary of one good engineer over a year…

      • 0 avatar

        It costs $32/sq ft to rent space at the NAIAS. How do I know? I had a sponsor lined up so I could rent a small space for Cars In Depth but they were all booked up.

        GM and Ford each have about 100,000 sq ft of display space at the NAIAS, so just the rental fees for the big two domestics is about $3.5 million. The displays themselves cost into the seven figures to build.

    • 0 avatar
      FJ60LandCruiser

      As a consumer who suffered the trials and tribulations of the PowerShit transmission in my Fiesta enough to swear me off of Ford for a decade, I can’t stress enough how much media hype they devote to deflect the tons of negative press about their half-finished products.

      For every consumer with a Fiesta leaking all over their garage and shifting like a drunken teenager driving a stick or with an exploding Chinese Mustang transmission (it’s OK, they’ve been cleared of wrongdoing!), or a Craptor owner with a bent frame, there are dozens of articles about quality, high-end engineering, or how Ford is the only company that didn’t take the bailout because they shifted thousands of jobs out of the US.

      Ford: you should have taken a few bil from Barry O and used it to fix your crappy engineering.

  • avatar

    I think Ford is making a mistake trying to buy mindshare among the peddlers of “sustainable materials, fair worker wages, and Ford’s role in public transportation”. Appeasement never works. It’s that simple.

    • 0 avatar
      harshciygar

      I disagree. Not everyone can be without a car, for one reason or another. These people also have friends who may be in the market for a car.

      If Ford can make the argument that they are the greenest of the automakers, that has a lot of appeal to a lot of people. And a lot of these people are online.

      That said, I for a group of supposedly open-minded people, I met quite a few who were closed to the idea of owning ANY American car, ever, period, end of story. But I also met one woman who told me her whole perception of Ford was changing.

      I bet the Blue Oval would *love* to talk to her.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      Sustainable materials, fair wages and a role in public transportation are not necessarily appeasement. Henry Ford understood the value of fair wages, and Walmart understands that the green approach to production and delivery of goods just makes good business sense:

      http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/12/how-walmart-is-changing-china/8709/

      • 0 avatar
        harshciygar

        Ford is also very quick to point that out. One of the engineers mentioned how some of the materials they are starting to use in place of petroleum, like soy and hemp, were used by ol’ Henry back when the company was new.

  • avatar
    harshciygar

    Chris here.

    A few of us tried to put a number on how much this event set Ford back.

    I can tell you that the Henry Hotel where we stayed ranges in price from $103 a night to $189 a night. The room was nice, but even though I set the temperature down to 58 degrees, it was stifling hot. The Internet connection was also so bad that I was unable to load a single picture while at the hotel. I would get booted off every ten minutes or so, and it would have taken 20 uninterrupted minutes to upload a picture at the rate it was going.

    Most of the bloggers came from the U.S., but there were also people from Russian, China, and South Africa among others. I don’t know what kind of rates Ford gets on tickets, but flying 146 people all over the world probably isn’t cheap.

    Ford provided 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners. They also comped room service. I personally ordered two of the cheapest items, and a root beer for lunch on Sunday.

    We got around by bus, though we were picked up from the airport in Ford livery vehicles (an Escape for me.)

    That said, it really wasn’t all that different from what I experienced at any other major auto show as a “journalist” attending on my own dime, rather than a “social media influencer.”

    The NY Auto Show is closest to me, so it doesn’t cost me much more than a train ticket and a taxi ride to get there. I went to the L.A. Auto Show in November though, and that set me back $700, of which I only did enough work to earn half of that back, despite cranking out 11 350+ word posts in one day while going back and forth to press conferences. I split the work with one other person, who managed to do about 10 posts over 2 days, and I was thankful to have her.

    There wasn’t enough time in the day for me to cover everything, especially with security making me walk ALLLLL the way around, out to the main entrance and then walking back along the same wall to get to the show floor from the media center Ford set up (in the back hall, behind the VW booth.)

    Even though I spent less money at Detroit, it felt like a giant FAIL for me because I couldn’t write everything I wanted, and it is pretty much already old news.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    “Ford paid for our flight, hotel, food, and transportation.”

    So, what do you, personally, think Ford is entitled to expect in return?

    • 0 avatar
      harshciygar

      The truth.

      I’ve argued with their VP of Global Sales on at least two occasions that NOT bringing the diesel Ranger to the U.S. is a huge mistake. I even started a petition on my own site that’s gotten almost 600 “signatures,” but to no avail.

      I hound them about why the F-150 gets an ethanol-ready 5.0 engine, but not the Mustang.

      Ford is my brand. They were before this, and they will continue to be as long as they don’t return to their crappy-car-making ways. They are far from faultless, but I have a vested interest in giving them my honest opinion. I think they are over-relying on the EcoBoost F-150, and I’m not really sold on the Fiesta either.

      And why no coupes??? My girlfriend only wants to drive 2-door cars, period, and yet the cheapest coupe Ford makes is a Mustang, which is about $10k more than the base Fiesta.

      Most people are only capable of a certain level of objectivity, and better men then me have tried and failed at it. If my Ford fandom disqualifies me in some people’s eyes, well, that is their business. But objectivity and journalism both seem to be in short supply these days. I figure at least I can be honest about it.

      • 0 avatar

        See my post below, I am definitely not talking about you. It seems you take your position as one of being a two-way advocate. One for Ford to your audience and one for your audience back to Ford.

        I respect that.

      • 0 avatar
        Banger

        And I quote: “I’ve argued with their VP of Global Sales on at least two occasions that NOT bringing the diesel Ranger to the U.S. is a huge mistake. I even started a petition on my own site that’s gotten almost 600 “signatures,” but to no avail.”

        THANK YOU, from myself and all the folks over at RangerPowerSports.com, who have been screaming this same exact thing. I’m pretty sure I signed that petition.

        At least SOMEONE has managed to get the opportunity to speak truth to power on this subject, directly to their face and not in some message board or car news blog.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        I’ve argued with their VP of Global Sales on at least two occasions that NOT bringing the diesel Ranger to the U.S. is a huge mistake.

        In this case, the score is VP of Global Sales 1, Blogger 0.

        The Ford guy is most likely more in tune with the market than you are. And unlike the bloggers and internet posters, he would have to pay the price for the consequences of having made the mistake. If the demand for diesel compact pickups and manual transmission station wagons was as high in the real world as they are on the internet, then they would have already been selling them.

      • 0 avatar
        harshciygar

        Dude, I want that Ranger. But if GM brings their diesel-Colorado over here, too-bad-too-sad Ford, there’s a Chevy in my future.

      • 0 avatar
        harshciygar

        @ Pch101

        According to AB, diesel sales are up about 27%. Hybrid sales are down.

        http://www.autoblog.com/2012/01/11/u-s-diesel-auto-sales-up-27-in-2011-while-hybrid-share-shrinks/

        I’m not saying I am or am not more in tune with the market. I am saying that if Ford brought that diesel Ranger to U.S. market, I’d find a way to buy it. And I’m not alone. I have plenty of friends who want a capable pickup with better gas mileage than the F-150 offers.

        Ford isn’t budging though. I can’t say I blame them, but I can say I think they’re making a huge mistake.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        According to AB, diesel sales are up about 27%. Hybrid sales are down.

        During 2010, diesels comprised 0.4% of the US car market, while hybrids were 4.3% of the market.

        http://www.epa.gov/otaq/cert/mpg/fetrends/420s10002-exec-sum-tables.xls

        If diesels gained 27% for 2011, then diesel sales now total a whopping 0.5% of the market. For every one sold, 199 other vehicles would have been powered by something else. Those figures aren’t exactly earth shattering, now are they?

        And this is why blogging drives me bonkers — the complete lack of context and editorial judiciousness is astounding. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but one would hope that opinions would be based upon something.

      • 0 avatar
        harshciygar

        And what I’ve learned from blogging is that you can’t please everyone.

        I’d much rather have a turbodiesel than a hybrid. I am not alone. And considering just how few diesel options there are, compared to hybrids, I’m surprised the gap isn’t wider.

        As the same article mentions, GM, Volkswagen, Mazda, and Mercedes are all introducing new diesel models in the U.S. in the next year. Chrysler has a diesel engine coming for the Jeep GC, and I’m pretty sure BMW has a few diesels lined up for the U.S.

        And then you have Ford, whose only diesel offering is in the form of full-size trucks.

        My opinions are based on what I see around me. That doesn’t always mean I am right. I’m sure Ford sees the same data as you and says “pfft” to diesels. And I don’t take much stock in studies trying to predict the future, but one could infer that if more cars offer diesel engines, then more cars will be sold with diesel engines.

      • 0 avatar
        majo8

        Nice article. Keep hammering away at their lack of coupes outside the Mustang. I too want to buy a small coupe, and being a Ford fan ( and stockholder ) myself, would like that purchase to be a Fiesta ST.

    • 0 avatar
      Ingvar

      So, basically, Ford expects you to talk about Ford, and Fords?

      • 0 avatar
        harshciygar

        Well I can tell you that of the paltry six posts I wrote, 2 were about Ford (both times the Fusion, for two different websites.) The other posts were about VW, Chevy, and Dodge.

        But yes, as you can imagine I spent most of my time talking with Ford people about Fords. However, I had some good conversations about what other automakers are doing, and it might surprise you to learn who Ford is watching and learning from.

      • 0 avatar
        Ingvar

        Do you believe that if you wrote enough critical or negative reviews, that you would ever be invited again under those conditions? I’m not asking for flame bait, or perhaps I am. But I’m wondering where you yourself perceive the bounderies to be of your own obligations. If somebody pays my meals, that means that I am bought. Where does the company dime end, and your own integrity start?

      • 0 avatar
        harshciygar

        You should ask Jack Baruth that question.

        I think if anyone writes enough negative reviews about anything, you’re bound to blacklist yourself, same as if you drive a test car into a wall, leave used condoms in the back seat, or drunkenly throw up on some executive bigwig (all stories I’ve heard from more experienced AJ’s than I.)

        That said, a few weeks after I attended the first Ford event, I started the diesel Ranger petition. I hounded Scott Monty and their PR department for diesel answers. They still invited me back.

        But I will not write something negative, for the sake of writing something negative. That’s not my style. I’m not snide or mean in my writing. I’m probably harder on Ford then many people simply because I expect better of them.

        I simply present things in my writing as I perceive them. I told GM that the stupid plastic vents on the Buicks are, well, stupid, and distract from an otherwise tastefully-designed car (specifically the Regal.)

        If Ford had been telling me what to write, what to Tweet, and what to do, I would tell you that, plain as day. If they did not invite me back for that reason, I’d say screw ’em. It might even push me into the arms of another brand. But so far, I’ve not seen or heard a single instance of that.

    • 0 avatar
      W.Minter

      If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.
      But some are happy with a salary in form of a “once in a lifetime experience” for writing. That’s OK. Columbus used glass beads, I’m happy times have changed. But that’s the ethical part. I would have gladly accepted an invitation to Detroit, I would have lost income, but that’s fine … it’s like not paying for the hobby. But in the end, all you are getting is exclusive, 1st hand … brainwash, the PR side of truth, the biased approach, the “we are now using hemp” version without saying “others use hemp for decades, we’re so damn late but finally our penny pinchers found out that it’s cheaper than the old stuff and we can use it for CSR and PR stuff”. That’s the investigative part of journalism, hard to find in auto journo. So why be more harsh to a blogger than to an auto journalist? I don’t know.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Anyone seen Faith Popcorn?

  • avatar

    The fact that auto companies employ any and all marketing tactics to sell their products should come as no surprise. They have to sell cars to stay afloat financially, and I have no moral or ethical issue with that basic business precept. How they market their product is up to them-not me. I feel zero sense of righteous indignation and outrage at this contrived scandal. Thanks to the writer for his well-written view on this subject.

  • avatar

    “Maybe that will inspire a few of them to deliver more honest, less paid-for opinions.” Thats the line that bothers me. These social influencers should be doing it “for love of the game,” NOT for a payday.

    Its like politicians. I have no problem with politicians with whom I totally and fundamentally disagree; I have a problem with politicians whom are bought. The exact same is true of fanboys.

    • 0 avatar
      harshciygar

      On a normal day, I can gross between $150 and $200.

      While at this event, I made less than half that. I can only speak for myself, but I essentially lost money on this event.

      I don’t think anybody there was getting rich off of their website. One guy was a full-time middle school teacher, another guy worked at Amazon, there was a retired Coast Guard officer, an insurance salesman, just a whole spectrum of people. There were also some professional writer types as well. I like talking to these guys, one of whom is even a 24 Hours of LeMons regular. Gave me a great idea for a K-Car team.

      • 0 avatar

        To be clear, profiting is fine. My issue is when profit trumps your reader’s interests.

        Everyone that writes anything needs to acknowledge that they serve their readers, not any sponsor or self interest.

      • 0 avatar

        Paul, any non-subscription, advertiser supported publishing is necessarily a complicated thing. While readers are necessary, the reader is not the customer. The customer is the advertiser. So my primary obligation as a publisher would be to advertisers. Smart publishers and companies, though, know that in the long run a publisher’s credibility with readers is more important than hyping this or that specific product and smart companies are tolerant of negative (but fair) reviews. I can assure you that the people at General Motors are well aware of how a positive review at TTAC carries more weight with readers than one by a schmoozed and stroked media influencer.

  • avatar
    mad_science

    Seems pretty rational to me.

    Ford needs to gain ground among people not reading the automotive press, but everyone else. People who buy Camrys and Corollas, etc.

    These people have interests outside of cars, and grabbing a tiny bit of attention and half second of thought from Mommybloggers or whoever is worth a hell of a lot more than 0.2s of 0-60 time.

    It’s just a bit off-putting to typical auto media producers and consumers alike to think that “these people” are getting access when they don’t even care about cars.

    • 0 avatar
      harshciygar

      It does seem to bother some of them. Some of the pro’s I talked to thought it was cool to have a fresh perspective there though.

      The only reason I wrote in was because first Jalopnik, then TTAC had posts on this, and well, if you’re going to write about us, maybe you should try *talking* to us.

      Jalopnik never named their source, for whatever reason and for the record, I didn’t see a root beer float machine, although there was root beer and ice cream in ample supply…

      I’m not saying they didn’t talk to someone, because there was sushi, and Rosa Park’s bus, and Scott Monty did talk about the “Opening the Highways to Mankind” advertisement he has (like he does at every conference.) But hey, of 146 people, maybe you could find SOMEONE willing to put their name down…

      • 0 avatar

        I respect and appreciate TTAC’s efforts to shine light on the backside of the automotive journalism, while simultaneously disagreeing with the end result they’re striving towards. There’s a ton of crappy, unreliable writing out there entirely deserving of mockery, to be sure.

        As a reader and writer of automotive media, I think exposure to cars at the goodwill of automakers is better than none at all. I have more faith in both myself and other auto writers of various degrees of professionalism to spot BS when they see it and give their honest opinion on a car.

        That’s why I kinda bite back not so much at the core content, but the tone of “[Company] paid for [something], therefore [all writers involved] cannot be trusted to give you the Pure Truth that only we can give”. Or the Jalopnik version, which basically boils down to some kid in the corner of the room pointing and shouting insults, then running away.

      • 0 avatar
        Ben

        Full credit to TTAC for publishing your side of the story, and it was great to hear about your experiences.

        I would have loved for you to ask the Ford Executives as to why they continue to ignore the Ford Falcon (RWD i6, turbo i6, or supercharged 5.0 anyone?), and why don’t they get the Australians to develop one for the North American market.

    • 0 avatar
      harshciygar

      I really do want to thank TTAC for giving me a chance to give my side of the story.

      There is no other website I could have gone to to get this quality of questioning and comments. I shudder to think what the Jalops would have had to say…

      And as far as the Falcon goes, well, Ford is committed to this global platform idea, and I’ve heard more than Ford exec allude to the next Mustang being more than just a single car platform. Take from that what you will…but four door Mustang for 2015? Mayhaps…

  • avatar
    Bimmer

    Chris,

    thanks for your story. If you will be petitioning Ford to bring Station Wagon(Estate) of Fusion(Mondeo), let me know where to sign up.

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