When the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt was launched in fall 2010, the company was embarking on "a whole new ballgame," according to Michelle Malcho,
communications manager for the Volt.
For the first 12 to 18 months of the car's existence, Chevy's communicators stuck to the car's specifications and capabilities.
"The storytelling was really about technology and technology leadership," Malcho says. "It needed to be. To be honest, a lot of people still don't
understand what it means to drive electric."
Once more Volts were out on the roads, however, that story shifted. It wasn't all about the high-tech stuff under the hood anymore. Over time, it came to
be about what it's like to own a Volt, and how being a Volt owner is kind of like having a membership in a special club.
That approach has coincided to sales boosts as people have come to know the Volt customer experience. Additionally, the Volt's Facebook community is nearing 200,000 "likes," and the Voltage community has nearly 1,000 topics in its Volt forum.
The initial approach
The Volt was introduced as "a technological marvel, in terms of engineering and design," Malcho says. "What you saw was more of the features of the car,
what the car was."
That type of message was necessary to pull in automotive bloggers who love to write about what really makes a car work, or environmental commentators who
want to know about gas mileage and ecological impact. The messaging explained the car's battery, how the engine works, that there's no transmission, and
"It was a slow rollout," Malcho says, as the Volt came to more dealerships across the United States.
The tech-heavy storytelling was great for the first year or so of the Volt's life, but "after a period of time, that story doesn't really resonate
A new direction
The turning point for the Volt came once the cars were available most everywhere, Malcho says. At that point, "you really have to tell stories of consumer
lifestyle, how it fits in to their life."
The car's technology is still a big part of the story, she says, but it's all embedded in the experiences of Volt customers. It's the customers themselves
who are getting the message out, on Facebook and on the ChevroletVoltage.com website.
"These people love their cars," Malcho says. "They're enthusiasts. They're probably the No. 1 marketing source for this vehicle."
The Voltage website is a good indicator of how the Volt's story has changed. The site started as a way to communicate the various features the car has.
Now, it's got a huge community of Volt owners and fans, an active blog, and dozens of owners' stories in video form. Other cars don't get enthusiasm like
"You don't have the opportunity to tell your messages with [the customer's] voice," Malcho says. "It's an amazing resource for telling the attributes of
Chevy's communications team doesn't have to go very far to find stories, either. Posting one story on Facebook usually garners a whole bunch more, Malcho
says. Even so, the team does a few things to drum up content, such as asking questions on Facebook.
Some adopt a playful tone, such as the one asking people to
suggest movie quotes to describe a picture of a Volt.
"We like to have a little fun," Malcho says.
Last year, Chevy offered Klout members with high scores a chance to drive a Volt for three days so they could talk about their experiences. The team
regularly invites Volt owners to join them at car shows and events such as the Woodward Dream Cruise.
Last year, owners were invited to participate in a "silent cruise" the night before the big event.
Chevy also has occasional webcasts through which communicators solicit questions from owners.
"A lot of times, they'll answer their own questions before we can get down the question line," Malcho says.
Malcho didn't share specific sales numbers, but she said they've been going up as more and more owners have shared their stories.
"You'll see an uptick in sales, and it kind of plateaus, then you'll see another uptick in sales, and it kind of plateaus," she says.
Malcho attributes the car's continued life to customers. Though a federal investigation into the car's battery didn't turn up any major fire risks, the PR setback was "a
real stumbling point for us," she says.
"How we pulled through that was with the customer voice and having their support," Malcho says.
The company plans to reach out to tell more consumer stories, she says.
"That's what's really going to grow the word of the Volt."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.