Dutch Mandel from AutoWeek, Terry Rhadigan from GM, John Neff from Autoblog and David Thomas from Kicking Tires (l-r)
It's not often that we report on ourselves, but our own illustrious editor-in-chief, John Neff (third from the left in the snazzy corduroy sport jacket his grandma got him last Christmas), participated in a symposium titled "Engaging the Blogosphere" at this year's Chicago Auto Show. It was a look at what the internet, and blogging in particular, means to the future of automotive journalism and marketing. Anchored by a brief analysis of the power of the internet on new car buyers, the event ended with a panel discussion that included representatives from "traditional media," an OEM, a car buying site and our own little professional blog. While the discussion produced some heated debate, it also helped put some outdated misperceptions of blogging to rest.
Follow the jump to read the whole story and learn what happened to shake up the room during the panel discussion. We've also embedded a video of the panel discussion so you can see for yourself what went down.
NOTE: We deliberately resisted the urge to add speech bubbles to the image above, so feel free to download a copy, add your own and post a link to it in the comments section of this post.
Emceed by the Chicago Auto Show's own Paul Brian, the conference began with a presentation by representatives of J.D. Power and Associates. Gene Cameron and Chance Parker of J.D. Power put some numbers on what we already know, namely that car buyers love the internet. More than 91 percent of buyers say they go to the internet to research vehicles before they ever set foot in a dealership. We can't imagine who those other nine percent are, but we suspect that number will be closer to 99 percent in the near future. Even more telling is the fact that dealers are recognizing many people don't have time to shop at their local showroom, so as much as 61 percent have wisely responded by offering pricing quotes and availability information online. The consensus was that it's game over, the internet has won. So what now? What does it all mean for the future of automotive marketing? The manufacturers just need to figure out how best to use this newish medium.
While traffic at portal sites like Yahoo.com, MSN.com and AOL.com (which owns Autoblog and the Weblogs, Inc. network, by the way) are huge, the issue at hand is more about reaching genuine potential buyers. Connecting with them in a non-threatening and authentic way is key. Manufacturers can no longer simply push a dominant message out to the masses and hope for impressions. They need to draw in active shoppers. They need to connect at a deeper, more authentic level because they're vying with so many more distractions online for the attention of buyers.
That's where blogging comes in. Here the guys from J.D. Power differentiated between professional and personal blogs. Professional blogs like Autoblog have editors and paid writers. To these researchers, professional blogs don't quite fit the traditional idea of a blog that's more like a personal, online diary. They described pro blogs more like "magazines" in a blog wrapper with a constant stream of daily posts delivered in a chronological, linear format.
While some professional blogs attract a lot of traffic, they only account for about 21 percent of the blogs out there. The rest are personal blogs written by individuals in most cases. While our access to vehicles and information is usually far greater than what the personal blogger can get, it's believed that these personal blogs may hold more sway with potential shoppers. Pro blogs can provide more comparative knowledge, but we remain "the media." It's that seemingly unaffiliated generic "Joe" who already happens to own a vehicle in which you're intterested that's seen as the pitchman of the future. That first-person ownership experience published on a personal blog supposedly connects with potential buyers better than any other type of message. This is similar to the power of message boards, forums and other types of chatrooms on the internet. As Chance Parker told us, some companies have tried their hand at this type of marketing already with mixed results.
The presentation from J.D. Power was interesting, but the ensuing panel talk was even better. The panel was comprised of AutoWeek Editor/Associate Publisher Dutch Mandel playing the role of traditional-media guru, Chevrolet Communications Director Terry Rhadigan as the buffer, Autoblog Editor-in-Chief John Neff as the face of new-media and KickingTires Editor David Thomas as the foil. Jason Vines moderated and asked a few questions to get things rolling. For many in the room, this was the first time they had actually heard professional bloggers talk about what they do. For one panelist, it was a chance to get something off his chest.
After talking about marketing challenges that can be better addressed through more focused ad placement, our own Neff also talked about how we monitor our comments. When he says that staying on top of the replies is one of our toughest challenges, he himself was challenged by Mandel. Dutch seems to think that rather than directing eyeballs to appropriate ads, bloggers have an even larger challenge in front of them. He criticized the veracity of blogs and added that bloggers will never have their asses calibrated (his words, not ours) well enough to be an authoritative voice in vehicle reviews. While the sound bite was priceless, it was a classic example of old media just not getting it.
Professional blogs like ours have evolved into something very similar to what Dutch manages in Michigan. While personal blogs may be written by unknown individuals who post without editing and without accountability, that is not true of professional blogs. As audience member and Autoblog friend Mike Levine pointed out, many professional bloggers come from journalism backgrounds and have been passionate enough about the automotive industry since their youths to know a thing or two about cars and trucks. Indeed, while our asses may not be as calibrated as those of 30-year auto journalist veterans like Mr. Mandel, they're certainly more so than the average Joe and getting more and more precise by the day.
The insinuation that what traditional media does is somehow more valid than online-only publications shows how traditional media still needs some edumacating. The old notion that writing an article that gets printed on paper before being shipped to subscribers is somehow more legitimate is absurd. But the fear of the unknown and the challenge from the young upstart is real enough now to cause concern for these old-schoolers. As media everywhere fights the credibility issue, for better or worse, we are all in that same boat together.
Thomas added his thoughts on the issue and talked about editing getting better. He also pointed out that Mandel's rant pertained more to enthusiast reviews than something like his blog, which is an adjunct to Cars.com, itself an in-market vehicle shopping website. Neff responded with an anecdote illustrating how we have deliberately chosen to slow down and balance our speed with a higher quality of writing and fact checking. Jalopnik's Ray Wert even added his two cents, challenging Mandel on the reach of his magazine and the accuracy of their demographic info. Rhadigan stayed out of it until someone brought up embargoes.
That issue was expected to be a good one, but Rhadigan played politician and basically agreed that it's an issue and things like long-lead introductions are almost impossible now. He explained that the embargo balancing act still has to happen though, as even the typical five-day vehicle introduction means that people who drive it on day one get an unfair advantage. The one interesting point was when he explained how they handle access for different outlets. He said the playing field is leveling but that certain outlets continue to demand different things. The depth of information provided and the access to sources within the company varies based on the outlet.
The meeting wrapped up with some tension still in the air, so the organizers probably got their money's worth out of the break-out group discussions that happened after the break. We'd tell you more about those, but we had to get back to posting. Check out the video clip below to see the whole thing unfold for yourself.