But Tesla’s passionate fans appear to have more than filled the void, creating and sharing positive information that helps shape Tesla’s public perception to its liking. Tesla has become by far the world’s most valuable automaker, putting Musk neck-and-neck with Jeff Bezos for the title of world’s richest man.
Tesla sells a fraction of the cars of other automakers, but has the largest combined following on social media channels like YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
Posting videos about Tesla on YouTube can be a lucrative business, provided the tone is generally positive, according to creators.
Some describe watching their audiences shrink when criticizing the company. They say the Tesla community can feel like an echo chamber.
Going viral with Tesla’s help
So far Trahan’s bet on a car that starts at $79,990 looks wise. Two of his Tesla videos have earned more than 7 million views each. The Tesla shareholder says he wouldn’t be able to draw such an audience with any other car brand. He credits the car’s features, like Autopilot, and how Tesla excites people about the future.
“As kids we dream about flying cars, self-driving cars, you name it,” Trahan told CNN Business. “There’s very few companies truly trying to achieve that future.”
Tesla’s social media success also may benefit from its efforts to connect with social media creators who think fondly of Tesla.
Russell feels that online creators like himself fill the gap of Tesla not having a traditional communications team.
“The product is so dope they don’t need a PR department,” said Russell, who says he first bought Tesla stock in 2012 and that it’s his largest position today. “I got involved with Tesla to make sure the company succeeded.”
“We almost feel like [Musk’s] translator sometimes,” said Zac Cataldo, who launched the channel in 2015 and saw it take off when they bought a Model X in 2016 and began posting road trip videos. They have a regular segment, “Elon’s tweets,” in which they try to put Musk’s comments in context and explain them. They say the YouTube channel has been successful enough to become a full-time job for both men. The Cataldos say they have been Tesla shareholders since 2013.
Videos from creators like the Cataldos prove valuable for Tesla, as the company does not spend money on traditional advertising. But Tesla does invest in its referral program, which can serve as a way to encourage creators to post positive, popular Tesla videos, and drive sales. Tesla owners can share a personalized referral code with friends who are purchasing a Tesla. When a Tesla owners’ referral code is used, they’re rewarded with perks like free miles of charging on its supercharger network and a chance to win a new Tesla. Many creators post referral codes in their videos.
The Cataldos say they have earned four Tesla Roadsters through the referral program.
They plan to take the vehicles on road trips in the US and Europe to post more Tesla videos, and offer rides to Tesla supporters.
The GameStop parallels
Individual investors and social media contributed to pressuring Tesla skeptics to give up on those bets last year, according to Aswath Damodaran, a professor at NYU Stern business school who researches markets, company valuations and finance.
“Tesla has always been a unique company, more religion (with Elon Musk as the titular head) than technology company,” Damodaran said.
When criticism isn’t welcome
Last month Coomer decided to shut down his podcast. He said he’d begun receiving negative reviews and feedback from users after criticizing Tesla, and the fun had disappeared.
“It’s very cultish,” Coomer told CNN Business. “You aren’t allowed to say anything bad about Lord Elon.”
She noticed people on Tesla forums getting attacked for complimenting electric vehicles other than Teslas.
She said it’s typical for her subscriber count to drop following a video that’s critical of Tesla.
“Constructive criticism is how companies and people get better,” said Java, who renamed her channel to It’s Kim Java last year. She said she still loves Tesla and what it stands for but is trying to be more independent. She still posts mostly about Tesla.
Alex Guberman, who runs a YouTube channel named E for Electric, feels that Tesla fans are far less accepting of criticism than fans of other automakers. He thinks that Musk has essentially created a community that praises Tesla and attacks any critics.
“He can say ‘Guys you know what, we’re not going to put wheels on this car anymore, you’re just going to have to push it around. And they’ll say, ‘Yeah some exercise! It’s about time! Elon is thinking ahead,'” Guberman said.
Guberman said he’s used to watching his YouTube subscriptions go up or down, depending on if his latest video was generally positive or critical of Tesla. He believes his channel would be far more lucrative if he delivered consistently positive Tesla videos, because his positive videos are generally viewed more times, which translates to a greater number of people viewing a video’s advertisements.
Tesla also appears to sometimes take steps that could shape what social media creators say about Tesla.
When he asked Tesla to have his referral link restored, he said he received an email back from the company. “The request to have your referral link reactivated was denied,” the email read. “We believe the actions you have taken on your YouTube channel are in bad faith towards the company and contrary to the intent of the program.”
Tesla draws so much coverage that it seems to be able to afford to make demands of social media creators. Sometimes even a positive video about Tesla may not be up to snuff.
Guberman, the host of E for Electric, said a friend who worked at Tesla invited him to a friends and family event to see the Model 3 at the company’s Fremont plant in September 2017. The first Model 3s had been delivered only weeks before.
Guberman said he followed Tesla’s rules not to shoot photos or videos in the Model 3s. Such rules are common at private company events. But he did film footage of the Model 3s on public streets near Tesla’s plant, and at a Tesla charging station, feeling it was reasonable, as the roads were public property and he said he’d seen other YouTubers film at the charging station.
Guberman said he posted a video afterwards on YouTube, which he shared with CNN Business. An excited Guberman praised the Model 3.
But that didn’t seem to matter to Tesla, as Guberman recalled. It’s common for companies to want to carefully stage when, how and what information about their new products emerges.
Guberman said he removed the video after a conversation with a Tesla communications staffer left him with the impression that the friend that invited him to the event could be fired.
“I’m a huge fan of the looks of the car,” Guberman said in the deleted video. “It’s just a really, really good car.”