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How Social Media is Fueling Automotive R&D

Sept. 8, 2011
Social media has 'widened the aperature' for automakers to view consumers' insights and product ideas.

When Kia Motors Corp. (IW 1000/103) begins building the 2012 Optima this month at its West Point, Ga., plant, the automaker will incorporate redesigned -- and cushier -- seats into the midsize sedan, merely a year after Kia launched an all-new version of the Optima in the United States.

While improved lumbar support lacks the sex appeal of spoilers, alloy wheels or -- let's be honest -- the 274-horsepower turbocharged engine in the Optima SX, the Optima's redesigned seats nonetheless represent a major shift in automotive R&D.

The South Korea-based automaker decided to modify the seat design after noticing a groundswell of complaints from consumers and automotive writers percolating on the Internet.

Kia, which uses business-intelligence software to monitor online comments about its vehicles, saw the Internet chatter about seat comfort and determined that it was "a bigger issue than we had anticipated," explains Kia's Michael Sprague.

Kia's Michael Sprague: With social media, "you can have a focus group of a hundred or a thousand people versus 10 or 20" plus, "you can do it almost in real-time."

From there, Sprague adds, "the fix was pretty quick."

"And in our world, for an automotive company to do something that quickly is almost unheard of," says Sprague, who is vice president, marketing and communications, for Kia Motors America.

"In most companies, it's like, 'OK, there's a problem, we'll fix that in the next refresh,' whether it's minor or major. And it could be three to five or seven years out."

Indeed, Kia's nimble response to the seat-comfort issue may be unprecedented for an automaker. But Kia isn't the only car company that views the vast sea of online chatter in social networks, discussion boards, blogs and online communities as a potential goldmine of product ideas -- free R&D, if you will.

"We believe that listening to the customers online is a tremendous opportunity to better shape our future product and company strategy," says Scott Kelly, digital marketing manager for Ford Motor Co. (IW 500/6).

Like Kia, Ford pays close attention to what people are saying about its brands on popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and elsewhere on the Web. But Ford has taken it a step further by inviting consumers to submit their ideas directly to the automaker, on a website called

The website's "Your Ideas" page allows consumers to post their ideas about existing or potential Ford vehicles, as well as comment and vote on other consumers' ideas. Based on the type of suggestion, Ford routes the ideas to the appropriate product-development team.

"It could happen in the shower. It could happen at the grocery store while deciding between one- or two-ply napkins. Most likely, it'll happen when you're driving," the website teases.

"A great idea pops into your head about how to make your Ford even better. Don't keep it to yourself. Post and read ideas here.

"You never know," the website continues, "your idea could become the next big thing at Ford!"

A Floating Car in Ford's Future?

Since Ford launched the "Your Ideas" page in April 2010, the automaker has received more than 4,000 ideas from consumers -- running the gamut from one woman's desire for a dog-friendly SUV to one man's wish for a floating car (to survive the floodwaters of a hurricane).

There are no bad ideas, emphasizes Ford's Rick Novak. But Novak, cross-vehicle strategy manager for the automaker, admits that "not all 4,000 ideas make the cut, so to speak."

"We have 4,000 ideas, but a lot of them could be duplicates, and so we try to bundle them up so they're properly evaluated," Novak says. "We put them into key buckets like convenience, safety or infotainment, and then based on those we evaluate the best ideas that are bubbling up out of those core buckets, if you will."

The "Your Ideas" page isn't a PR ploy, though. Ford is seriously considering several ideas received on the website, Novak says, while several other suggestions have served as validation for ideas that Ford already had in the works.

As for specific examples, Novak says he's "sworn to secrecy."

While Novak points out that "Your Ideas" is just one of many inputs in Ford's product-development process, he says the daily feedback from consumers "clearly has been a bonus and a value-add to the process."

"Obviously it gives us a little bit more flexibility on reading the market and understanding the market and wants and needs," Novak says.

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.

'Fly on the Wall'

As automakers and other companies pay closer attention to the Internet chatter about their brands, a cottage industry is emerging to help them scour the web and aggregate the ocean of online comments into actionable data.

Nielsen Online's BuzzMetrics software, for example, promises to deliver "meaningful consumer insights and real-time market intelligence" gleaned from nearly 100 million blogs, discussion boards and other "consumer-generated media" platforms, according to the company's website.

Data provider WiseWindow's MOBI (Mass Opinion Business Intelligence) software leverages "cloud computing, proprietary deep website crawling, relevance recognition and statistical natural-language analysis" to predict consumer purchasing intent and behavior, according to WiseWindow's website.

In layman's terms: "We're basically the proverbial fly on the wall, just sitting there listening in on all these conversations that consumers start on their own," explains Marshall Toplansky, president of Irvine, Calif.-based WiseWindow, whose clients include Cisco and Kia.

With MOBI, a company can plug in any search term or combination of terms -- whether it's related to the company or its competitors -- and the software combs all publicly available Web pages containing user-generated comments to find any mention of the term.

The data can be sliced and diced in myriad ways. For example, MOBI can provide an index of the 500 most talked-about cars for the week, and show how much of the chatter for each vehicle was positive and negative.

The software enables users to drill down to each individual URL containing commentary about the desired search term, allowing them to view each and every comment -- if they have the time or inclination.

Such insights into consumer sentiment, says WiseWindow's Kevin Everhart, can drive product development and demand forecasting.

Everhart points to the online buzz about the Honda Element -- which Honda recently put out to pasture -- as a prime example.

"That's a vehicle that has a pretty strong loyalty following, so people online were saying, 'What am I going to buy now? I need something that's going to carry my stuff and my big dogs' and whatever else they have," says Everhart, who is WiseWindow's lead analyst for the auto industry. "And then you could see that people were starting to discuss what other vehicles are out there that can meet their needs. Is it an SUV? Is it a crossover?

"From an R&D perspective, [that might prompt you to ask], 'What's the need here? And what are the vehicles that we have in our current lineup that meet those needs? And does it warrant maybe another vehicle down the road that we want to consider?'"

Down the road, the tools that companies use to analyze the vast tapestry of online conversation might change, just as the social networking tools may change "depending on who's built the better mousetrap," says Nissan's Marx.

But using social media to make "real business decisions is absolutely the future," Marx asserts.

"I don't know what form it's going to take 10 years from now, but this is the way people are going to communicate," Marx says. "This is the way people are going to get information. This is the way people are going to give information.

"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."

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