Ford is driven to strengthen customer hold

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Trying to further cozy up to its customers online, Ford Motor Co. is introducing a co-marketing program with Yahoo!.

The personalized marketing and retention program, unveiled yesterday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, allows owners of Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Mazda vehicles to register at Yahoo! Autos (autos.yahoo.com) or at Ford's OwnerConnection (ownerconnection.com) site, which offers car-owner services. Once registered, users can access owner guides and Ford Credit information; receive recall notices and service reminders; and maintain auto maintenance logs. They can also plan trips and receive real-time road conditions.

CHATTING WITH ENGINEERS

In coming months, auto owners also will be able to schedule appointments with their local dealers through OwnerConnection, or even chat and correspond with Ford engineers through Yahoo! Clubs and Yahoo! Message Boards.

The service will be extended to owners of Ford's Jaguar and Volvo vehicles later this year.

Ford's family of brands has an estimated 40 million owners.

"Our mantra is to be where consumers are online, and people are spending time at MyYahoo," said Jamie Allison, e-marketing manager of Ford Motor Co. "At the core of this is the opportunity for our owners to be able to maintain their vehicles online," he added, referring to the service reminders.

Also this week, Ford and Yahoo! will kick off a promotional sweepstakes at the Detroit auto show, inviting Ford owners to register at Yahoo! in the automaker's OwnerConnection site. The companies will also promote the sweepstakes at auto shows in Chicago and New York. The grand prize is a co-branded Yahoo! Ford Focus customized with Yahoo!'s purple and yellow graphics. Yahoo! will inform its registered users of the new service.

Since last year, Ford has tried to attract owners to register at its corporate Web site at ford.com. But Ford's OwnerConnection didn't offer online service reminders and other perks.

REGISTERED OWNERS

Mr. Allison said one of the goals of the partnership is "to bring a lot more people to register" online as Ford owners. He declined to say how many owners have already registered at ford.com, saying only it is significantly more than tens of thousands.

Owners who register at Yahoo! will have the option of connecting directly to Ford.

Mr. Allison said the contract length is more than a year, but declined to be more specific. Financial terms of the non-exclusive deal were not disclosed.

EARLIER FORD DEALS

Ford has ventured into interactive marketing before. Last year, it inked co-marketing deals with Excite@Home, women's online community iVillage, Microsoft Corp.'s MSN CarPoint and others.

But Anil Singh, chief of sales and marketing at Yahoo!, argues this is Ford's most integrated and extensive to date because it involves personalized services and direct marketing programs throughout all relevant areas of Yahoo!.

For instance, if someone has signed up for Yahoo!'s calendar service, an oil change appointment will show up automatically on the appropriate date.

As to whether Ford's move might be seen as sidestepping dealers and anger them, Mr. Singh said, "This is not a direct car-buying service. It's an informational service designed to build loyalty throughout the ownership period."

41.7 MILLION UNIQUE VISITORS

Yahoo! had 41.7 million unique visitors on all of its sites in November, according to Media Metrix.

In addition, Yahoo! and Ford have busy car sites. Yahoo! Autos had 616,000 unique visitors in November according to Media Metrix, right ahead of Autobytel, which had 573,000 unique visitors. Ford's site came in No. 5 in top auto sites in November, according to Media Metrix, with 954,000 unique visitors.

The other sites in the top five were Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com) with 1.9 million unique visitors, MSN CarPoint with 1.2 million, Edmunds.com with 1.1 million and Cars.com with 1 million, according to Media Metrix.

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