The New Focus Group
With four new-model launches slated for 2012, Nissan Motor Co. (IW 1000/29) is in a growth mode this year. That is, the automaker is trying to grow its fan base on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter so it can squeeze the "maximum impact" out of them when it launches the new models next year, explains Nissan's Erich Marx.
Like most -- if not all -- of the major automakers, Nissan has come to view social media as an essential marketing tool. It's not hard to see why. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that 65% of adult Internet users are on social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
But there's an evolution underway. For Nissan, which manages three Twitter streams and a half-dozen Facebook pages for its vehicle brands, social media is becoming the de facto mechanism to receive and resolve customer-service issues.
Nissan also is dabbling with using social media as a research tool. In August, the automaker invited Facebook fans to suggest names for a new optional interior package for the Nissan Cube. Prior to the advent of social media, Nissan might have convened a focus group for such a task, Marx notes.
"From a research standpoint, I would say we have our toe in the pool," Marx says, noting that Nissan routes the consumer comments received on its social networking sites to its product-planning teams. "We've been having fun with [social media] so far by crowdsourcing."
| Nissan's Erich Marx |
on social media:
"The brands that are listening, that are willing to leverage it and be open to the power of it, I think they're going to be more than a step ahead."
A little fun aside, Marx sees social media as a means to conduct "some real, hard-core research" down the road.
"With 300,000 people following us on our [Nissan Facebook] page, we certainly have a relevant sample from a statistical standpoint," Marx says. "And I believe that will be the way social media is used in the future."
As a tool for gleaning customer preferences and ideas, social media has some advantages over the focus group and other methods, Kia's Sprague says.
In a focus group, an outspoken participant sometimes can influence the opinions of other group members. That's not an issue online, where people typically are less inhibited and more likely to express raw, unbiased opinions about your products.
And then there's the issue of logistics.
"[With social media], you can have a focus group of a hundred or a thousand people versus 10 or 20," Sprague says. "I have sat through so many focus groups when I'm the guy behind the mirror just eating M&Ms and watching people talk about either products or marketing. Now you can do it almost in real-time."
Could social media feedback someday replace the focus group in the product-development process?
Probably not, asserts Ford's Kelly, who emphasizes that "when you're investing the kind of money we invest in products," a rigorous, multifaceted approach to product development is needed.
Still, social media "has widened the aperture for us to get input from our customers," Kelly says.