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As part of an attempt to form stronger relationships with their customers, auto marketers are on the leading edge of testing new interactive media.

Computer discs, on-line services and interactive TV are some of the new-media tools carmakers hope will generate higher customer loyalty.

Interactive media can provide the two-way communication between marketers and consumers that's crucial to any relationship marketing program. That's why some automakers are interested in this field, even though the interactive media world is still in development.

"One-to-one marketing is the next trend," says Michael Webster, senior VP-management supervisor and member of the new technology team at Ross Roy Communications, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., one of Chrysler Corp.'s agencies.

Mr. Webster predicts interactivity will let carmakers "create the ultimate dialog and help them become close to the consumer as an individual."

Wanting to get close to the individual has led some marketers, like General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division, to get involved in on-line servicessuch as Prodigy and CompuServe.

Pontiac advertises on both services, offering consumers an 800-number to call for more information. In addition, CompuServe provides an on-line dealer locator and a payment calculator, which enables consumers to figure out payments on a new Pontiac before visiting a dealership.

These services let Pontiac "develop a three-way interactive circle between the consumer, dealership and the division," says Stuart Pierce, direct marketing manager at Pontiac.

"Relationship marketing of big-ticket items through on-line services makes it easy for marketers to respond to consumers, stay in touch or give information," he says. "Most of all, it generates consumer enthusiasm."

Pontiac also ran a test on Home Shopping Network on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 to generate leads and to test the new direct-response medium. Because Pontiac targets young, highly-educated consumers, "we need to be on the forefront of technology," says Mr. Pierce.

Meanwhile, Chrysler has jumped head-first into several new interactive endeavors. The automaker sponsors Interactive Network, a TV service that lets subscribers interact with sports broadcasts, game shows and other programming.

For example, a subscriber can watch a football game and use the device to predict the next play. During the game, Chrysler advertises on the system through mini-messages that appear at the bottom of the screen.

Jim Julow, Chrysler's director of marketing operations, says interactive communications present the opportunity to "do more up front of in-dealership visits to establish a loyalty or relationship with the customer."

Ross Roy and Bozell, both of Southfield, Mich., are working together to develop the Chrysler involvement with Time Warner's interactive cable TV system test. Called Full Service Network, the system will switch into 4,000 Orlando homes by year end.

Other auto marketers participating in the test include GM and Nissan.

In the Time Warner test, auto marketers will participate in an "auto mall" where viewers can browse among brands, watch video brochures and set up test drives at the touch of a button.

"In the test, we hope to find how customers interact and create a new dynamic between the customer and the dealership," says Mr. Webster.

Although some marketers are involved in what's seen as the forefront of interactive media, many marques are involved in a time-tested interactive option: computer software.

GM's Buick division pioneered the use of computer discs in automotive marketing in 1987, now having distributed more than a million.

The program has enabled Buick to "have continual correspondence with these people," says Nancy Newell, who started the Buick software program and is now director of sales-automotive division for the makers of the software, Inmar Group.

According to Buick, the software program has resulted in increased sales, test drives and visits to the dealerships. The company attributes the disc's success to its highly targeted audience of computer users.

Other companies that have used interactive software, in IBM and sometimes Macintosh formats, include GM's Cadillac division, BMW of North America, Volvo Cars of North America, Ford Motor Co.'s Ford division, Chrysler's Jeep/Eagle division and Nissan Motor Corp. USA.

Many of these discs provide a game along with a high-tech vehicle sales brochure. Users are allowed to review vehicles and receive information about price, options and features.

"The technological flexibility to establish a marketing relationship with an individual is mind-boggling," Mr. Julow says.

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