SEMA News—June 2020


By Mike Imlay

The New Media Landscape

Could Tapping Social-Media Influencers Promote Business Recovery?

Media Landscape
Cinematographer/editor Christopher Petruccio produces the popular Krispy Media YouTube channel, which boasts 426,000 subscribers. As an influencer, he often promotes car events and hopes to help push their recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

There was a day when the foundations of the automotive aftermarket rested entirely on print publications, but now communications channels have evolved to take advantage of the faster, two-way interactions that the internet has enabled. Social-media marketing has become a necessity, and “media influencers” have become part of the picture. And given the challenging economic currents the industry is now navigating, social media and the potential of influencer collaboration presents a growing opportunity. In fact, those influencers could well play a critical role as aftermarket businesses look to recover from the coronavirus-induced slump that began last March.

Derek Drake is CEO of DriveShop, a marketing agency based in Redmond, Washington. The agency specializes in connecting automotive brands with social-media influencers and journalists.

“The content creator/influencer marketing space is one that is very much in real time,” he said. “It’s often one where the campaign gets launched and happens within the next few weeks. It’s not something that usually takes months to find its way into the market. Because of that, it’s a great opportunity right now.”

As America was beginning to shelter in place to fight the COVID-19 virus in late March, DriveShop quickly launched research into the lockdown’s effect on content creators, their engagement with followers, and their collaborations with sponsors and advertisers. The results of the DriveShop survey underscored the tremendous opportunities for brands as consumers’ online and social-media consumption surged.

Roughly half of influencers reported increased follower accounts, and a third of the influencers were posting more frequently to meet the increasing demand for content. More importantly, however, 52% saw increased follower engagement and interaction with what they posted, while only 22% said that they were posting content related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It said that audiences were engaging in their normal course of content, not just about the coronavirus, and that was really telling,” Drake noted. “From a geographic standpoint, it didn’t really matter whether or not they were in a market that was under a shelter-in-place order at the time.”

The irony, Drake said, was that content creators reported a noticeable drop in their brand collaborations, meaning that sponsors and advertisers were cutting back on their social-media campaigns at the precise time the potential benefits were spiking. Adding to the irony, collaborating with content creators is not all that difficult, and the costs of such campaigns can be highly scalable for aftermarket brands of all types and sizes.

By now, virtually everyone is familiar with the concept of “social-media influencers.” While the term has become a catchall for social-media personalities with large followings, many of them in the automotive realm wince at the title. Some prefer to be called “brand ambassadors,” but the safest description is probably “content producers.” Whether on Instagram, YouTube or other social-media platforms, they create regular photos, posts or videos (typically around a single theme) intended to inform and entertain fellow enthusiasts or followers. Most create that content in a freewheeling, freelance environment, often first as a hobby that they later learn to monetize.

Media Landscape
Claudia Moreno has built a 213,000-strong following on Instagram as RSTgirl. Her static posts and stories chronicle the work she does on her truck. Brand endorsements have helped her monetize her content, but she’ll only take on products she can authentically vouch for.

Keeping It Real

Claudia Moreno, who goes by the name RSTgirl on Instagram, is a case in point. She first started her Instagram account about four years ago to chronicle her work on her Chevrolet Regency sport truck, only to realize two years later that she could monetize her posts as a brand ambassador.

“My sister said, ‘You work on your truck every other weekend and evening. You should post about it and share it with the rest of the world,’” Moreno recalled. Still, she couldn’t believe anyone would care about her posts as she worked on the truck and did “day-to-day things, like brakes and changing the oil.”

But as Moreno put it: “People love being entertained, and people love to pay to be entertained. My first picture was a picture of me next to my truck, and I got a few likes. And then the next picture was of me changing the oil—and it just went on and on and on, and it grew and it grew. So the moral of the story is just being different and unique really attracts the public. And after so long, brands wanted to be represented by somebody who is unique.”

Moreno noted that authenticity was a major factor in building her audience of 213,000 followers, and that sense of authenticity carries over to deciding which brands she will partner with or represent.

“I’m so real with my followers, and they’re so real,” she said. “You don’t want to get to a point where it turns out like it’s a marketing page, because people don’t like that, especially car people,” adding that she often turns down pitches from lifestyle brands having nothing to do with her automotive passion. “I really look for something that’s connected to me, which is automotive. So anything like a big car company brand or a manufacturer that I can use in my project is more than welcome.”

Like other social-media content creators, Moreno represents paying advertisers by utilizing their products in her images or Instagram stories, but she includes hashtags to let followers know that the content is sponsored. Payment often varies and can take the form of actual dollars, comp tickets to an automotive event, or free product for her build projects.

Meanwhile, Rob Dahm has built a following of close to 800,000 subscribers on YouTube chronicling the transformation of a Mazda RX-7 into a car he could love while saving up for his Lamborghini Diablo dream car. He agreed that authenticity is a key commodity, and there must be a synergy between a brand and a content creator for a business arrangement to work.

“I won’t take on an automotive relationship if I’m not using the part,” he said. “Probably one of the most successful things about my relationships with Garrett or Valvoline is that they’re really interesting parts of my build and products that I actually use. So it becomes very organic.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, Dahm also saw a definite shift in interactions with his channel’s subscribers.

“I’ve had so many messages,” he said. “I’m talking thousands, but you can see a trend to them. Recently it’s been, ‘We’re stuck at home. Please make videos. Please make content. We want to see what’s going on with other people in the car world.’ They’re doing a lot of DIY stuff in the garage. There’s a lot of people just changing their oil, the simple stuff. And then there’s other people actually begrudgingly dusting off the old project car and finishing what they started.”

Media Landscape
Research by DriveShop, along with anecdotal reports from automotive social-media influencers, reveals that there was a surge in social-media consumption starting in late March as sheltering-in-place enthusiasts sought information and encouragement to tackle car repairs and build projects.

Digital Spokespeople

Rich Waitis, senior manager and spokesperson for MagnaFlow, said that this form of social-media marketing has been a successful part of his company’s marketing mix for years now. From his perspective, partnering with influencers isn’t all that different from traditional marketing’s use of industry icons such as Mario Andretti or Chip Foose to endorse or promote brands.

“We’ve been really big [on] understanding that the consumer audience is always looking for some means of validation of what they’re doing with regards to what products they’re purchasing or some type of critical review,” Waitis explained. “Is the product good? Is the brand good? They’re looking for those sorts
of testimonials.

“So in that, we have a mix of the traditional kind of the ambassadors that have done what they do through the years of either racing or design or whatnot. We also mix in the people who are in front of the camera, whether this be on the social side, the digital side or the television side. These are simply the people who are putting out the information. This could be an educational format. This could be something that’s in more of an entertainment format. But they’re people who are providing insight as to what automotive people are doing around them.”

Waitis added that a key advantage of social-media endorsers is in the granularity they provide. A brand can target smaller niche audiences or specific enthusiast communities with uniquely tailored messaging.

“There’s a ton of people out there who may never be in the market for buying,” he said. “We’re hoping that if they ever are, we’ve created enough content material out there to give them some insight as to what we provide as a benefit. It’s about creating really meaningful relationships inside of these communities and creating people who have not only brand affinity but a desire to be a part of the brand and the things that we participate in.”

Another advantage of marketing through social-media content creators/influencers is the wide latitude of platforms, costs and terms for agreement. While most will make simultaneous use of several social-media platforms, it’s usually to drive follower traffic to their preferred channel.

The big three currently are YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. The number of followers will typically help dictate the cost of a sponsorship, “commercial spot” or promotion. Prices can range from simply supplying product samples all the way up to $3,000–$10,000 or more for large campaigns returning high levels of follower engagement—but that means there’s room for brands of all sizes and types to play in the arena.

A company can either turn to a marketing agency to craft an expert campaign or reach out directly to chosen influencers with a simple email to negotiate a deal. The crucial factor is finding a content creator who resonates with your brand and trusting them to deliver your message to their audience in their own,
authentic terms.

Underscoring the findings of the recent DriveShop research, Drake believes that now is the time to focus on the role influencers can play in helping aftermarket businesses resurge in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For the savvy brand marketer out there, it definitely creates a significant opportunity because you’ve got influencers now posting more content, their audiences are more engaged, their follower accounts are rising,” he said. “They’re not really talking as much about the virus. They’re focused on more routine activities, and they’re open to brand collaborations.”

He added that influencers are a really smart place to spend the few dollars that brand marketers have in this period.

“First, influencer content is evergreen,” he said. “So if you get influencers posting on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, those posts live on. They don’t go away. Unlike an ad that’s up for a period of time and then it’s out of market, [social-media posts] done now will still be there this summer. And if it grows in follower count and in likes and in engagement, it might grow in search-engine results and get indexed. So you’re going to spend dollars in marketing and put them in a place where that content is still going to be there two, three, four months down the line. That is a smart investment.

“The other key reason why I think it’s a really interesting place to put dollars in advertising now is that in a traditional ad—as the marketer or advertiser—the messaging, the creative, the production all rests on you, and then you have to add in a publisher and an outlet. With an influencer campaign, all of that rests on the influencer. They’re producing the content. So you get to save on that, plus that content is customized for the audience.”

Christopher Petruccio echoed those sentiments. A cinematographer/editor based in New York state, Petruccio produces the Krispy Media YouTube channel boasting 426,000 subscribers and aimed at other automotive photographers and filmmakers. Part of his work includes the promotion of car events across the country—many of which have suffered cancellations or postponements due to the pandemic. Consequently, he sees many small automotive-related businesses hurting, spurring him to do his part to help their recovery.

“You know, we’re going to have to come out on top of this somehow,” he said. “A lot of these companies and a lot of [workplaces] have got shut down.”

He pointed out that influencers offer an ideal way for those businesses to say, “Hey, we’re still here. We have all got through this together. Look at this new product we had all this time to think about and to design, to draw up files for. Here’s this new product that we’re coming out of this with. Maybe that’s going to be something that can come out of this for some cool companies.”

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