Automakers involve consumers

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Auto marketers are moving online to reach consumers.

General Motors Corp. recently started real-time, online clinics to gather consumer reaction to upcoming products, said Mark Hogan, president of the carmaker's e-commerce unit, e-gm, which was formed in August.

"The days [when] we brought in 1,000 people over a weekend to look at our products will soon be a thing of the past," Mr. Hogan said.

If GM mines data the right way, it can learn what consumers want in future vehicles, he said.

Nissan North America is on a similar road.

Jed Connelly, VP-general manager of Nissan Division, said the development of the brand's new Xterra sport utility stemmed partly from cybersurfer input.


Nissan designers realized outdoorsy, young "trailheads" were driving wagons and sedans with homemade racks to carry their recreational gear because they either couldn't afford SUVs or the SUVs lacked the hooks and racks they needed, he said.

"This started an ongoing dialogue using the Internet and other forms, through the product-development process and continuing today," he said. "Now and in the future, we're able to use new media to involve customers earlier and earlier into the design process -- and probably in ways we haven't even thought of yet."

Nissan wanted to find out how credible Xterra's win last year of Motor Trend magazine's SUV of the year award was with consumers, Mr. Connelly said. So the marketer sent a series of e-mails to 1,500 target buyers "conducting, in effect, an online focus group," he said. He didn't discuss results, but said, "new media is fast, efficient, real-time and two-way" and expects Nissan to do more online consumer research in the near future.

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