You want to be an auto journalist because you want to drive fancy cars, stay in luxurious hotels, given complimentary First or Business class tickets to exotic places and be the first to test models yet to be launched? Sorry to burst your bubble but that ain’t happening – not even for some full-fledged automotive review sites. This is a point that took me a while to understand.
There is a certain cost associated to inviting a certain media to participate the company’s sales/marketing event. I’ll give you two hypothetical examples;-
- Premium auto Brand just launched a new model and has registered a test car. Let’s say the test car is worth RM400,000. In order not to incur too much depreciation cost, said Brand would remove the vehicle from the media fleet after a certain mileage is reached; let’s say 10,000km. Now imagine that test unit is now being sold as a Brand certified used car, less than 1-year old with mileage less than 10k km and almost full warranty – how much would this practically-new-some-rich-guy-who-probably-got-bored-of-it-soon-after-buying model fetch? RM350,000? Cost to company = RM50,000
- Premium auto Brand wants to invite media to Madrid Spain to test their all-new sports car. Business-class ticket, 5-star hotel room, fine-dining restaurant as well as other miscellaneous charges would cost the Brand RM40,000 – RM50,000 per media.
We can see both scenarios costs a fair bit of money and the Brand needs to be selective on who it wants to invite. Understandably those with the highest return of investment are preferred. How do you determine that? Simple;-
- Advertisement in a newspaper – Full page estimated cost RM50k. What many do not know is that editorial content is worth 3 times the cost of an advertorial because companies believe that a review has greater impact on readers versus advertisement. If the newspaper is feeling generous, a two full color spread has a perceived value of the almost the entire car! Ideal target: 2 x English paper, 2 x Malay, 2 x Chinese : Total: 6 media, estimated minimum ROI: RM900,000
- Airtime coverage – cost variable depending on media but Astroawani is almost a standard inclusion in most media events
- Advertisement in magazine – est. cost RM4,000 – RM6,000 per full page, perceived value (same as newspaper) x 3. Ideal target: 2 x English, 2 x Malay, 2 x Chinese : Total: 6 media, estimated minimum ROI: RM90,000
- Online – it’s harder to put a cost to online because banner ad charges differ according to size, position in page, etc. Therefore most companies place a perceived value of RM8,000 for each online review.
All in all, the number of media listed above already around 15 – 20 entities.
If my Maths don’t fail me, for each media who drives a media unit an average of 800km, each model can be given to only about 12 media (remember; the cap is 10,000km and 12 media x 800km = 9,600km) . And that’s not counting media who takes the car multiple times (once for single review, another for a comparison shootout article, etc) or even company internal events like roadshows which piles mileage on the car as well. Some of those bigger media may not even get to test the unit before it’s pulled out.
Overseas media drive are far more expensive and the selection process is far more rigorous. Depending on the company, the cost of airfare, accommodation, allowances borne by the local subsidiary so only those media that has the highest value are selected. Under such circumstances. there is almost no chance smaller sites get invited.
So it’s not a question of writing better, taking nicer pictures or having more Likes in Facebook. It’s all ringgit and cents and unless the media has a special personal relationship with those in positions of authority, the odds of receiving getting a test unit or invite is slim. Take a look at the ranking position of some of the automotive websites in Malaysia;-
There are a few online trackers available, most of which require monetary subscription but Similarweb.com is one of those few that can be used for free (you can use it to check your other non-automotive favorite sites). I’ve been told it’s not very accurate but should suffice to get a general snapshot of who’s where in the totem pole. It does not represent ALL automotive sites but I do believe at least 80% of all online automotive traffic visits these sites.
When you look at these numbers, it is important to note that some of these sites may have higher traffic (classifieds such as Motortrader and Carlist, strong discussion forums such as Autoworld and Zerotohundred) but the audience may be very different compared to review only sites like kensomuse. The topics they seek (for instance a person looking for a specific second hand model may hit 5 pages on a classifieds but spends only seconds per page), socio-economic position, age group, gender may differ from site to site and it’s up to companies and their agencies to screen which site to support. Some sites, even though they may have low online audience has the right kind of audience that suits their brand (such as The Grid, previously the magazine Autogridz targets the bespoke high society and it makes sense for brands such as Bentley and Ferraris to provide them access to their vehicles).
We’ve not even addressed the issue of accident risk every time a car is taken out, regardless if the handler is a senior track-certified editor or a noob
Once you understand the constraints faced by automotive companies, you’ll see why some test units doesn’t trickle down. Partly because the PR value of the top few are high, the other part is because of strong relationship some media has with certain individuals in the company with influence who decides which site is worthy of sanction. We’re all human after all and some people are susceptible to being apple-polished in exchange for privileges.
Proper PR companies or effective Corporate Communications division conduct regular audits to determine site rankings and realigns their resources accordingly to obtain better mileage from their support.
But most don’t bother. Why? Because their KPIs does not reflect real world applications and once people gets comfortable, people don’t change. Some companies subscribe to media analyst companies such as Isentia that ranks ALL blogs, regardless of reach the same, hence the same value. Imagine an article run on Paultan.org has the same PR value as kensomuse. Ridiculous, right?
It’s almost as absurd as inviting media with hardly any reach to oversea trips yet it happens – and when asked the reply from the local reps is “Choice made by higher ups, not my call”.
Just as farcical as media units being allocated to sites with less PR value but some person of influence used his/her personal opinion to push their favorite editors up. Take for instance a senior editor leaving print and starting an online portal with the equivalent online traffic of a site dedicated to learning Mini Vanilli songs but being given the almost the same entitlement as print. It happens because …
So in conclusion, PR entities are concerned about two things:-
- Relationship and trust
An editor may cultivate good relationship and gain the trust of the principal over the years of working in the industry but may nett zero ROI if said editor started a new medium with poor reach (at that point of time). But the bosses don’t see it. They recall the journalist who’ve been so supportive of their brand, who writes so well and been to almost every event of the company. They’d wonder why that journalist isn’t at their event and when the staff tries to explain that things are a little different and they had to drop him in the place of another with better ROI, guess how the boss would react?
PR would be in hot soup trying to justify a new media and the dropped journalist is included in future events. Yep, it’s all back to square one.
Ever heard of the 5 Monkeys Experiment? Where consistent punishment is meted out for a certain action will discourage the action, no matter how right or wrong. In some companies, the bosses/clients are the source of the problem. You can strategize all you want but ….
But times are changing. The auto industry is going through a challenging phase, with shrinking budgets, high targets and competition that isn’t sitting idly so it’s just a matter of time before the management is forced to evaluate all their processes and improve. The ones that do it sooner would reap far greater benefits when the economy recovers.
Therefore, I believe agencies/bodies should strike a balance between engaging with media who has proven themselves to be reliable, responsible and trusted to deliver a solid piece of editorial content AND scouting for new media that’s up and coming. A journo may choose to cash in on his/her relationship with the brand and muscle his/her way into events but eventually, business demands will weed out those who could not compete effectively against the other media in the long run.
Nothing personal; it’s just business.