Tesla’s superfans have made it a social media star. There’s a catch.
“I want Elon to know that he can trust me. I basically have his back and every other Tesla person that’s helping the mission.”
Sofiaan Fraval, a California software engineer, said he never had thought about launching a podcast before Tesla’s Cybertruck arrived.
Critics poked fun at Tesla’s November 2019 unveiling of the Cybertruck, zeroing in on the truck’s unconventional look and a gaffe during CEO Elon Musk’s on-stage presentation. A test meant to show the toughness of the Cybertruck’s windows ended with broken glass and embarrassment.
Tesla was criticized, and leading critics called the truck’s aesthetics “polarizing.” Fraval said he noticed how people weren’t discussing the truck’s price or battery range, two features he found impressive.
Within days he launched the “Third Row Tesla Podcast” along with friends. Fraval felt it would be an injustice not to get more information out there on the Cybertruck’s features. Fraval, like many Tesla fans, is drawn to the company’s stated mission of accelerating the transition to sustainable energy. He said he wants a better world for everyone, and that he is grateful for Musk’s work. Fraval has been a Tesla shareholder since 2018.
Within three months of launching his podcast, which he also uploads to YouTube in video format, Fraval found a large audience of Tesla fans. This meteoric rise resulted in a coveted honor in Tesla fandom. On the podcast’s seventh episode, Fraval and his co-hosts interviewed Elon Musk himself. The YouTube version of that episode has been viewed 1.5 million times.
Musk and Tesla have all but stopped engaging with the traditional news media, and the company generally has not responded to inquiries from journalists for a year. Both Musk and Tesla (TSLA) did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Communications experts have cautioned that the move is unwise and leaves Tesla vulnerable.
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
Ryan Trahan, who has 2.75 million subscribers on YouTube, says he’s not the type to buy an expensive car, but he made an exception for Tesla. He figured if he could get 10 or 20 million views by making content related to his Model X, the SUV would pay for itself from YouTube ad revenue.
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.
Trahan declined to say how much money he has made from his Model X videos, and revenue from YouTube video advertisements can vary widely, but 1 million views can yield several thousand dollars or sometimes tens of thousands, according to estimates from YouTube creators.
“As kids we dream about flying cars, self-driving cars, you name it,” Trahan said. “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.
MrBeast, a YouTube superstar with 52 million subscribers, has featured Teslas in many of his videos, including giving them away as prizes. When MrBeast launched an effort to plant trees in 2019, Musk donated a million trees, more than anyone else. MrBeast did not respond to a request for comment.
YouTube creator Galileo Russell, who has run a channel devoted to Tesla since 2016, says Musk put him on the map after inviting him to ask questions on a 2018 earnings call for more than 30 minutes, an unusual step that angered some analysts.
Russell closed the exchange with Musk by saying, “Keep up the awesome work.” Subscriptions to his HyperChange channel grew quickly afterwards.
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.”
Zac and Jesse Cataldo, a father and son who post sustainable technology videos on their YouTube channel Now You Know, say they feel like they contribute to what a communications department might do.
“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
Experts believe that Tesla’s passionate fanbase makes it difficult to bet against its stock. They point to GameStop’s recent stock run-up as a reminder of what devoted supporters can do for a stock, and the costs to those who bet against it.
Tesla skeptics have already lost billions doubting it — investors who shorted Tesla lost $40 billion in 2020.
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
Hershel Coomer fell in love with Tesla the first time he felt the cars’ speedy acceleration. He considers himself a “fanboy,” and launched a Tesla-focused podcast in 2016, Plug Your Ride, under the pseudonym, “Eddie Haskell.” Coomer says he sometimes has criticized Tesla because he wants it to succeed. He’s discussed the quality of Tesla’s body paint, and solving Autopilot’s phantom braking, in which the car unexpectedly and unnecessarily brakes. (Musk has said that phantom braking should be fixed, but some drivers continue to report phantom braking.)
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 said. “You aren’t allowed to say anything bad about Lord Elon.”
Coomer also serves as an administrator for a Tesla owners group on Facebook with more than 83,000 members. He said it’s common to see Tesla fans pounce on people making negative comments, or requesting that critical comments be removed.
Other Tesla enthusiasts have wrestled with similar negativity from the fan community. Feeling inspired by Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla, Kim Java launched a YouTube channel, Like Tesla, five years ago. Last year she was pregnant and said she felt burned out from making more than 200 YouTube videos on her channel. She took time off and said she got a different view of the Tesla community, as an outsider.
She noticed people on Tesla forums getting attacked for complimenting electric vehicles other than Teslas.
“I wanted to get the people who do love Tesla to be more open and understanding,” said Java, who posted a video last month examining if Tesla’s community was cult-like, which drew mixed reaction.
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.
He compared the adulation for Musk to conservative media outlets’ coverage of Donald Trump and the impact to outlets’ viewership. Fox News, which some Trump loyalists now view as overly credulous of certified election results, recently suffered a drop in ratings.
Tesla also appears to sometimes take steps that could shape what social media creators say about Tesla.
Rich Benoit, who works on vehicles on his YouTube channel Rich Rebuilds, has said he lost out on receiving a free Tesla Roadster he said he qualified for after being kicked out of the referral program. Benoit posted videos in which he expressed frustration that his Tesla had taken months to be delivered, among other complaints. He says he then received an email from the company stating that he was banned from its referral program. CNN Business reached out to Tesla about the email, but did not hear back.
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.”