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The Next Social Network? Your Car

Ford VP-Americas Shares Thoughts on Why Autos Aren't Just for Driving Anymore

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The Ford Sync: Connecting drivers
The Ford Sync: Connecting drivers
At the Ultimate Blogger Dinner at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, some surprise guests included several top Ford Motor Co. executives, namely CEO Alan Mulally, Director of Connected Services Doug VanDagens, and President of the Americas Mark Fields. I spent time talking to all of them and a video interview I recorded with Fields proved especially revealing.

Ford teamed with Microsoft to create its Sync system, which essentially turned its cars into souped-up MP3 players with hands-free calling. In 2009, Ford's more ambitious, as it presents a greater vision for what driving is all about. For a taste of that vision, see what Fields had to say about social networks, listening to customers, and the blogosphere -- hardly the discussion I expected to have with someone from an automaker's executive team.

Below are excerpts; you can watch the full video on YouTube.

David Berkowitz: How did this happen where a car isn't just for driving? What do you see a car as being about?

Mark Fields: A car used to just get you from Point A to Point B. What a car is becoming now is not only getting you from Point A to Point B, but allowing you to stay connected to the entire world as you're doing it. We've introduced our Sync feature which basically allows any Bluetooth-enabled device to be connected to the car through the audio system in the car. It keeps people connected as they're driving they're vehicle and they're able to be more productive, but it's also very important that they stay connected to wherever they want to stay connected to, whether it be a person, or their music, or traffic directions -- those types of things.

Mr. Berkowitz: You're making a car sound a lot like a social network.

Mr. Fields: Very much so, when you look at where the trends are going, and people wanting to be connected, and wanting to know where other people are, and what they're doing, it's going to become more and more a piece of that - it's what people are going to expect out of their vehicles.

Mr. Berkowitz: How pervasive is this mentality? Does this go into the design of the car? Is it more about what features are added on to it?

Mr. Fields: I think in terms of the design of the car, what we're using for our Sync platform, what it allows us to do -- it's an open platform, so we're using an open platform and using the creativity of all the programmers that are out there to develop applications. All these applications are out there that we can access through our Sync system and through the customer's handheld device, the phone, etcetera, to access the cloud, so to speak -- the expertise that we bring is: what's the customer's experience with the application while they're in the vehicle. What's the format and how should it be presented? How do we make sure that it's not a distraction to the driver so much that safety starts becoming a risk?

Mr. Berkowitz: I was hearing your CEO talk about the car as a platform and I'm hearing you talk about the open API, and I feel like I'm talking to people from Google or something. It's just not the image I think most people have when talking about Ford or any car company for that matter.

Mr. Fields: We're spending a lot of time as a company listening to customers. I think in the past, we've listened as just a car company, providing transportation, but as you listen to customers and what they do with their lives, we've had to broaden our thoughts around that.

Mr. Berkowitz: Given the channels available with digital media, are you finding new opportunities for listening to your customers, and are you finding your customers are using these more to communicate with you?

Mr. Fields: Absolutely. When you look at our Sync system, for example, we get lots of input back from various blogs, but also our own website SyncMyRide, and we get a lot of feedback from customers who are either using Sync and are providing us lots of feedback for improvements, or customers just in the blogosphere that maybe don't have experience with Sync but have wants and needs and say, "Why can't a car company do this? Or why can't a car company do that?" But we're really using the Web, the cloud, the social media as a very efficient way of doing a lot of market research in real-time.

Whereas in the past as a car company what we used to do if we were going to come out with a new feature, well we'd go out to a couple of different cities to do some market research, then our market analysts would really crunch the data ... but now you get it real-time. We really need to listen and use it to help us become at satisfying the customers as opposed to just ignoring it. I think any company that ignores it does it at their own peril.

Mr. Berkowitz: Do you do that yourself, just to poke in and see what people are saying?

Mr. Fields: Oh yeah, I try every morning to go on various blogs and see what they're saying about Ford Motor Company, see what they're saying about our products. We do specific research on themes that are coming through in the blogosphere. It's really important to us, particularly as we try and have our Ford products and brand appeal to a new generation.

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David Berkowitz is director of emerging media for 360i. He has written dozens of articles covering media, marketing and technology for several trade publications over the past decade and has spoken at Digital Hollywood, Ad:Tech, SMX, OMMA and dozens of industry events. He blogs regularly at Inside the Marketer's Studio.

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