INTERACTIVE;OH WHAT A WEB SITE, TOYOTA;AUTOMAKER TAKES THE WHEEL ON THE INTERNET WITH LIFESTYLE FEATURES

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Want to plant a garden? Plan a trip? Visit the newest Internet special interest publisher: Toyota.

With its new Web site (http://www.toyota.com) being unveiled Oct. 17, Toyota Motor Sales USA is putting more emphasis on ad-free lifestyle features than on Toyota.

The No. 1 Japanese car marketer is betting useful and interesting features will generate repeat traffic that over time will build Toyota's image and sell more cars. Visitors can request that they receive email alerting them to updates in the content, some of which will change every day.

"We want to build a sense of community with our customers and our prospects," said James Pisz, Toyota national direct response manager.

The Web site adds to Toyota's growing interactive mix, which includes CD-ROMs and Prodigy and CompuServe connections. Those two services will link directly to Toyota's Web site.

In all, Toyota this year is investing an estimated $4 million in interactive media and marketing. While small compared with Toyota's $766 million ad budget, that's big in interactive.

Toyota has found that 56% of its owners have access to a PC, heightening the marketer's interest in using digital media. Some 80% of luxury car owners use a PC; Toyota's Lexus division hopes to have a Web site up by early next year.

As with sites developed by rivals like Ford Motor Co. and BMW, visitors to "@Toyota" will find a host of car information. Through a questionnaire, Toyota will steer prospects into a suitable car and play up attributes, such as safety or performance, that seem appropriate.

Toyota is encouraging dealers to open Web sites. As Toyota and dealer sites expand over the next year, Mr. Pisz says, customers will be able to get pre-approved loans, buy insurance and negotiate the purchase of a car.

Toyota is licensing content on gardening, travel, sports and other special interests from Novo Media Group, San Francisco.

Novo is developing the site, working with Toyota shop Saatchi & Saatchi DFS/Pacific, Torrance, Calif. Novo, meanwhile, is developing CD-ROM titles on each lifestyle topic (AA, May 22).

Novo's $9.95 LivingHome CD-ROM, on sale next month in book and computer stores, will be sponsored by Toyota, MCI and a handful of others and will include direct access through MCI to each of the sponsors' Web sites. So the sponsors both license and distribute Novo content.

Novo's business model is based on high traffic and multiple sponsors to allow the $1 million development cost of projects like LivingHome. "We're trying to lay more software applications and more original content," said Kelly Anthony Rodriquez, publisher-CEO. "For that, we need to yield more media and sponsorship money."

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