Ford's online effort clicks into gear

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Ford motor co. is racing at cyber speed to create alliances with high-tech partners such as Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Yahoo!.

Like its crosstown rivals, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler, Ford is allowing prospective buyers ways to build their dream car to financing and servicing it.

It's all part of Ford's ConsumerConnect, a sweeping e-business enterprise.

The initiative is shifting Ford's customer and dealer spotlight to the Web.

"Our ConsumerConnect business has a totally integrated strategy to reach consumers in conjunction with our dealers at every touch point," says Brian Kelley, corporate VP and president of ConsumerConnect. He joined the auto company from General Electric Co. last summer.

DIRECT CONTACT

"ConsumerConnect is responsible for Ford's entire direct consumer interface, including retail locations, the Internet and call centers," Mr. Kelley says.

He says the online push will give consumers the ability to buy the cars they want when they want them. That, in turn will help Ford create a better distribution system for the future.

"Today, what consumers buy is what dealers have on the lot," Mr. Kelley says. He predicts online ordering, within five years, could shave half the time from the the typical 90-day delivery estimate.

Mr. Kelley also predicts dealers will change their role in the car-buying process and operating costs will dip, because better-informed buyers won't need an hour with a salesman.

"The Internet changed that; now consumers have more information earlier," he says, pointing out that instead of visiting three or four dealerships and spending an hour or so with a salesperson at each place, now consumers can get quotes on the Internet and decide which dealer to visit for a test drive or purchase.

ConsumerConnect launched last September, barely a month after GM announced its e-GM global business group. Ford.com links to more than 100 consumer and business-to-business Web sites.

ConsumerConnect is a parcel of customer-focused Internet marketing initiatives that include Web sites with online events and promotions. The ConsumerConnect push includes Ford management groups dedicated to developing business-to-business initiatives, consumer e-business, customer relationships, telematics (in-vehicle communications) and the Ford Investment Enterprises Corp.

The consumer e-business activity includes three customer and dealer sites: OwnerConnection, BuyerConnection and DealerConnection.

Ford estimates that 175,000 owners were registered at OwnerConnection.com as of April 1, and the site is averaging about 50,000 new sign-ups a month. In the next few years, Ford hopes to have millions of subscribers, including all Ford and Lincoln-Mercury owners. Ford has an estimated 40 million owners among its brands.

YAHOO! JOINS IN

Ford expects its 4-month-old, co-marketing program with Yahoo! will dramatically increase the number of owners who register online, the automaker told Advertising Age early this year. Ford owners who register on Yahoo! get online service reminders and special service offers.

Mr. Kelley estimates about 40% of consumers have Internet access now and says, "We think it will get to 80% very quickly."

Mr. Kelley says consumers will benefit in a number of ways through the consumer and dealer sites.

Ford.com, set up in 1995, already leads rivals in more site visits than any manufacturer per month, according to Media Metrix, which samples 50,000 U.S. Internet users for monthly comparisons. In January, Ford.com had 843,000 unique visitors, compared with GM.com's 704,000 and 319,000 for Chrysler.com., according to Metrix. Those numbers, however, are lower than they were in September.

DEALERS GET MORE INFO

Peter Look, who heads Ford's consumer e-business group, says that Ford dealers have been briefed on the consumer activity and can access specific company Web sites to get more information on incentives, customer and marketing initiatives.

"We work hand-in-hand with dealers, and they remain fully informed of e-business activity through such avenues as the Dealer Council and password-protected sites," Mr. Look says. About 80% of dealers have registered on DealerConnection, he adds.

More than 35,000 "fast quotes" per month were sent to dealers through the site, he says.

He declined to give specifics on Ford's marketing plan, saying only, "ConsumerConnect is a large business unit comprised of several distinct sub-units. Each unit pursues its own marketing strategy."

"The manufacturer is driving people to the Internet. But it helps everyone to learn how to use it. Dealers are getting there. It's just making the financial commitment to do it," says George Benson, owner of Benson Lincoln-Mercury. Mr. Benson, who serves on the 29-member Ford Dealer Council, says most of his dealership's 55 employees are Internet savvy.

INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE

Ford would not discuss costs, but industry experts estimate that a project as vast as ConsumerConnect would have a hefty launch cost.

"You have to spend in the tens of millions on people and software alone to do a good job. I tell people to imagine opening a multimillion-dollar business in another country and apply the same model to the Internet. It will take billions to make it work in the long run, but it also will get billions in return," says Bob Harvey, president of I-Can Online. Birmingham, Mich., an Internet communications company. Mr. Harvey was a founder and senior VP of AppNet, regional manager for Wang Laboratories and business unit manager for Electronic Data Systems.

Ford, which earned a record $7.2 billion worldwide in 1999 and sold more than 7 million vehicles worldwide among its seven brands, continues to expand its relationship with technology integration leaders. In February, Ford worked with Trilogy, a provider of e-business solutions, to operate all Ford's customer-facing Web sites. A month earlier, the Yahoo! deal was cinched to develop personalized services for Yahoo!Autos, putting Ford in touch with more than 105 million Yahoo.com consumers.

Ford would not discuss costs for its technology partnerships and alliances. Josh Linkner, senior VP with Internet consultancy Rare Medium, says all major car marketers must adopt a Silicon Valley-type mentality in the new economy, like GM has done. GM spent "tens of millions" to launch e-GM, he says.

"The message is that companies like Ford have to be prepared to write big checks now because it's an investment in their future," Mr. Linkner says. "They spend billions on advertising without thinking about it. The playing field is changing to the Internet."

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