The Chevy Volt's #1 Fanboy

By · August 13, 2008

If you were to visualize the most enthusiastic supporter of the much-touted Chevrolet Volt—someone who rallies thousands on its behalf, who blogs daily, whose influence and prestige garners invites to tour GM facilities and speak with top GM brass—what would that person look like? Take a moment and think about it.

Did you envision a mild-mannered suburban neurologist? Well, meet Lyle Dennis.

In the kind of unlikely story that only the Internet could spawn, Dennis was inspired to create after reading a web story about the launch of the Volt concept vehicle on January 7, 2007, at the Detroit auto show.

Always something of a technology enthusiast, Dennis started “building websites for fun” in 1994. And he’d become increasingly concerned about the oil economy and the US dependence on imported oil. He hadn’t followed cars, Dennis says, but something about the Volt concept “struck a chord”—and inspired him to read more. Three days later, he registered the domain GM-Volt, and put up his first post on January 12.

Interest built slowly at first, as he linked to news stories about the Volt, both commenting on them and inviting user feedback. Perhaps “10 to 100 people a day” visited the site initially, but slowly the numbers grew.

Then, in June of that year—to his surprise—he got an invitation to meet with Nick Zielinski, the chief engineer of the Volt team. GM flew him to Detroit, a city he’d never visited, brought him to GM headquarters, and introduced him to team members. The company also included him among the press at an invited media event to mark progress in the Challenge X competition among college teams to build cleaner, more economical cars.

It was part of a controversial program by the Volt public relations team to reach out and embrace not just traditional press—meaning “buff books” like Car & Driver—but also digital media, including bloggers. And it worked: Dennis wrote about his visit, about the things he’d learned, and about meeting Zielinski and others.

Lyle Dennis and Bob Lutz at GM's Volt Nation event. src="/files/volt-nation-lutz-300.jpg" />

Lyle Dennis with Bob Lutz, General Motors product chief, at "Volt Nation." GM is promoting the Chevrolet Volt by giving voice to its fans.

Rob Peterson, who has run the Volt PR effort from the start, confirms that Dennis is an unlikely but very effective advocate for the Volt. “Who would have thought,” he asked rhetorically, “that he could get 33,000 interested people” to sign GM-Volt’s register of potential Volt buyers? But Peterson is a big fan of social media, and pushed hard for bloggers and other influencers to be treated as well as—in some cases perhaps better than—the usual press outlets.

Of course, GM’s digital efforts suit its marketing goals: Increase brand awareness, encourage supporters to interact and promote the Volt on their own, and associate the Volt with social media venues reflecting a green agenda. It wasn’t the first digital effort; GM launched the Fastlane blog way back in January 2005. And earlier this year, it kicked off the GM-next site. GM’s marketers say they’re pleased with the results, and social-media analysts have said good things about GM’s efforts as well.

For Dennis, the momentum has built steadily. Today, he claims his site logs 1 million pageviews a month from 250,000 unique users. When you google “Chevy Volt,” his site is the second listed—right behind Chevrolet’s own site.

As a doctor and scientist, Dennis asks incisive questions that get to the heart of the matter—which he feels has brought him success, despite (or perhaps because of) not being trained as a journalist. As he points out, he didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to ask—so he asked. And he’s not troubled by charges that he’s biased; “I consider myself biased, and that’s OK. I want the Volt to succeed!”

There’s a risk to such uncritical support, of course. Some bloggers—and their commenters—painted the Volt as an example of GM “greenwashing,” no more than an effort to hoodwink the public. If GM fails to deliver on its promise of Volt production by November 2010, or the car doesn’t run well or fails to deliver the promised mileage, then Dennis and other supporters will look like deluded pawns in yet another GM failure.

In person, Dennis is the epitome of mild-mannered. Appearing in public next to the always-colorful Bob Lutz, he came across as an appealing mixture of fan and acolyte for the Volt. The event was “Volt Nation,” held this April at the New York Auto Show, where Volt fans from around the world were invited to pose questions to the development team and Lutz. Promoted on the GM-Volt site—with quiet but substantial support from GM—the event brought hundreds of fans from across the country to ask surprisingly detailed question of the bemused but informative team. It was, says Dennis, a high point of his entire effort.

With positions at two New Jersey hospitals, three children under 10, and a side hobby of running marathons—yes, amidst all of this, the man runs marathons—Dennis admits that keeping up with the dozens to hundreds of daily e-mails can be a burden.

But the best is yet to come. He eagerly awaits the unveiling of the production Volt at the LA Auto Show this November, and further details leading up to the launch in November 2010. He expects by then that his site will have “10 times the traffic.” And knowing GM, neurologist Lyle Dennis may just be there when the first Volt rolls off the line.

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