Automakers Watching Consumers Online
By Michael Cohn
Consumers posting their criticisms online about the cars and trucks they
drive may not realize their views are being closely monitored by the
automotive industry. Most of the major automobile companies employ marketing
firms to keep close tabs on customer sentiment and how it's being reflected
on blogs, discussion groups, listservs, and enthusiast sites.
There is no way to opt out. Like it or not, people who write their opinions
online are making their voices heard loud and clear with the big automakers.
Meanwhile, Detroit is doing its best to make sure negative perceptions from
dissatisfied customers don't sink the reputations of its latest models or
its carefully crafted, expensive ad campaigns.
While some Internet users welcome the opportunity to have their views heard
by the companies that put them behind the wheel, others are surprised to
find their concerns monitored and answered online.
Ken Payne, president of Ford Truck Enthusiasts, noted that Ford posts
"sometimes covertly and sometimes overtly" on his site.
"When Ford is a little more open they're received a little better," he said.
"We also draw a line on our site between using the site to gather a little
information and using it for official market research."
Payne believes the majority of the site's users are aware that Ford is
listening. "You always have your occasional guy who's a little paranoid
about that stuff," he said. "But most of them like the fact that they have
an ear with Ford."
The site's users, according to Payne, influenced the design of Ford's 2004
Car enthusiasts are invaluable to the auto industry, since some of them seem
to guide other users' purchasing decisions.
"In every discussion forum, 10 percent are influencers," Bill Stephenson,
director of automotive business development at Intelliseek, said. "Those
consumers are resident experts who spend a lot of time in their forum, who
others know and trust."
Intelliseek's customers include Ford, BMW, Lexus, and Toyota. The company,
which gathers marketing data from the web, monitors 9 million blogs, along
with 60,000 discussion forums, Usenet newsgroups, travel sites, and auto
RSS feeds can create particularly pesky problems for automakers, since a
negative comment on one blog can quickly spread to a multitude of blogs.
Carmakers have responded by creating blogs of their own to influence web
users. One recent attempt by Mazda to launch a blog to tout a new product
backfired, however, when bloggers realized it was a fake.
"It looked like it was created by a regular consumer, but the bloggers
smelled a rat and found it was created by an agency," Stephenson said.
"That's a big no-no in the blogosphere. You don't try to pull one over on
the bloggers. They are subject matter experts."
To be fair, automakers can't be blamed when they encounter misperceptions
and misinformation on the web and feel they need to take steps to counteract
"A number of enthusiasts and owners were complaining about one technical
issue that they felt hadn't been addressed by the company despite them
complaining about it for months and months," Jerry Needel, vice president of
client services at BuzzMetrics, said. "The enthusiasts were literally taking
it to the level of telling people not to purchase the vehicle if they were
coming to the forum. The engineers were very surprised because they had
fixed it months ago, but it had never been communicated. The enthusiasts
felt like they were being ignored. It never made its way to the street."
BuzzMetrics has worked with a number of automotive companies, including
OEMs, parts companies, and service providers. The firm tries to take the
perspective of a consumer researching a car by looking at corporate sites
and third-party sites, and trying out Google searches to see what's creating
interest in a product, whether positive or negative.
"Clients want to start monitoring buzz before a launch happens," Needel
said. "It helps marketers uncover expectations around a vehicle prior to
launch. If there are incorrect expectations, they can adjust them."
When there's a product recall, BuzzMetrics tracks the consumer reactions and
signs of litigation. BuzzMetrics's biggest client is GM. Its technology uses
a spidering engine to find relevant conversations and converts them into a
single data format for analysis. The company then has analysts sift through
the information using business intelligence tools and compiles the
information into market-research reports.
Competitor Brandimensions, on the other hand, runs algorithms to derive a
"sentiment score" that describes the emotional connection of the consumer to
the brand, and then tracks any change in the sentiment and volume over time.
The data comes back to a product manager who writes the final report.
Brandimensions finds that on average between 80 to 90 percent of consumers
research a vehicle on the Internet before they head to the dealer.
Brandimensions monitors blogs and discussion forums to find where people are
talking extensively about a vehicle. When they are asking a lot of questions
or spreading a false rumor that could be damaging, they are assigned an
alert, which is sent to a contact center that helps the company decide how
to engage consumers in that venue.
"We train clients to do it in an ethical and upfront environment," Bradley
Silver, Brandimensions's chief operating officer, said. "They establish a
relationship with the forum moderator and ask permission to address their
The effect of this type of outreach can be profound on customers.
"They feel like they're getting superior customer service and being given a
voice," Silver said. "You're not there to snoop, but to provide them with a
service. Then it translates into something very positive."
Whether it's perceived as positive or negative, the major automakers are
keeping close tabs on the Internet to see exactly which direction their
vehicles are heading.