CARMAKERS STEER FOR INTERACTIVE;AUTO MARKETERS RALLY BEHIND MEDIA FOLLOWING SALES ACCELERATION

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Volvo Cars of North America found out fast why it's called the World Wide Web.

When the Swedish importer put a home page up last October at http://www.volvocars.com, one of the first e-mail responses it got back was from someone who wanted to know the location of his nearest dealer-in Tanzania.

"We knew the Internet is global, but we weren't thinking globablly," said Bob Austin, director-marketing communications for Volvo's North American organization.

Volvo now runs a disclaimer that information on its site pertains only to the U.S. and Canada, and it has discontinued e-mail until it figures out what staffing will be needed to provide timely responses.

The problems haven't dampened enthusiasm for new media, however. There's been a rush to set up home pages on the World Wide Web, with several auto marketers already there and others like General Motors Corp. planning their debuts. Online services, CD-ROMs, computer discs and interactive kiosks are becoming common.

"Our testing has helped us decipher the realm of the practical vs. pie-in-the-sky stuff," said James Julow, director of marketing operations for Chrysler Corp. "Now what we need is to put together a new cost/benefit matrix that allows us to evaluate these efforts."

But automakers don't lack financial resources; and so far, only an estimated 1% to 2% of most auto marketing budgets is going into interactive media. Most marketing executives see expenditures growing as more consumers gain access.

"We will spend more money over time," said Mr. Julow, who added that the money would come out of traditional media budgets. "It's a zero-sum game."

Recent research by Toyota Motor Sales USA showed nearly 60% of people who bought a Toyota have access to a computer.

When Toyota ran an infomercial for its Tercel subcompact, 58% of respondents who called an 800-number asked to receive further information by computer disc.

Interactive media allow an auto marketer to "affordably deliver a more in-depth message than traditional media," said Volvo's Mr. Austin. "You have the luxury of....time to tell a more detailed story." After nine months on the Web, Volvo is getting an average of 300 people a day visiting, Mr. Austin said. "I don't know if that number is good or bad, but we feel enough people are looking at it to make it worthwhile."

Auto marketers are trying to integrate interactive opportunities with other marketing efforts to reinforce brand image.

For instance, GM's Chevrolet earlier this year sponsored a Prodigy site with America's Cup sailing updates tied to Chevy's sponsorship of the America3 entry. Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Web site for its Pathfinder sport-utility vehicle at http://www.nissanmotors.com/pathfinder uses graphics similar to its print ads and offers information about outdoor activities to reinforce Pathfinder's active lifestyle positioning.

"I'm convinced you can effectively use interactive media to build brand image," said John Farris Jr., direct marketing manager at Pontiac. The GM division has used its Prodigy site to feature its youth-oriented Sunfire with an online story of three young people on a road trip.

One of the biggest challenges for auto marketers is figuring out how to work dealers into the mix.

Several auto marketers provide a dealer locator on their Web site. Toyota, which plans to have a Web site up and running by Sept. 15, will experiment with ways of allowing consumers to use the Internet to communicate directly with dealers.

One particular problem for auto marketers has been determining what infrastructure is needed to handle e-mail.

"Not having a consumer response mechanism is a shortfall, and solving it is a priority," said Mary Wernette, national ad manager-sales, service and marketing for GM's Saturn (http://www.saturncars.com).

While automakers are early adapters of interactive media, they don't necessarily want to be on the leading edge.

"You have to work with developing the lowest common denominator so that everybody has an honest and fair viewing of what you're doing," said Jim Pisz, national direct response manager at Toyota.

More than anything, auto marketers are crying for information that enables them to enhance their efforts. They want an industry standard that will enable them to measure the effectiveness of an interactive ad against other interactive executions and also against an ad in traditional media.

"One of the hardest things is that you don't know who's accessing your site. That means you don't know what message to give to that person," said Larry Dale, marketing specialist for Ford Automotive Operations.

Lynn Talaski, brand communications manager at Cadillac, said one reason the luxury car marketer signed up as a charter sponsor on The Wall Street Journal's Money and Investing Update site on the Web is because the Journal will be conducting focus groups and gathering demographic data on who is using the service.

Still, marketers like Pontiac's Mr. Farris have put together enough data to know that interactive media is playing a direct role in a growing number of auto sales.

"It's premature to say that our spending on interactive media is justified based solely on sales volume," Mr. Farris said. "But there's no question this is a marketing tool."

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