Car Talk: Ford Listens in on Consumers' Online Chatter

Information From BrandIntel May Influence Everything From Ads to Customer Service

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DETROIT ( -- Ford is joining the ranks of marketers realizing listening is as big a part of their jobs as talking.
Ford also hired an outside agency to monitor consumers' impressions when it launched the Edge crossover.
Ford also hired an outside agency to monitor consumers' impressions when it launched the Edge crossover.

The automaker is the latest to join the search for unvarnished consumer comment online as it today finalizes a contract with BrandIntel, a unit of Bandimensions, Toronto, to track internet chatter about its Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands in the U.S. and the Ford brand in Europe. The results of that intelligence may eventually influence Ford's product, its product-launch strategy, its PR strategy and its ad messages.

Monitoring consumer impressions
It's not the first work Ford's done in this arena. When it launched the Ford Edge, the automaker hired an unnamed outside agency to monitor consumers' initial impressions of the small crossover vehicle as a test of the vendor vying for a global contract in that arena, said Steve Crosby, manager-global media services and internet communications at Ford.

It learned, among other things, how fast stories from print populated blogs and became the subject of online discussion. More than that, however, Ford was so taken by the public's positive reaction that it is discussing whether to launch consumer-generated media at the same time as ads in traditional media for coming models.

Under the terms of its BrandIntel contract, Ford wants to know what people are saying about its vehicles, their styling and their performance, as well as the corporation's reputation and financial issues, Mr. Crosby said. The automaker is also looking to "identify issues that weren't as apparent to us" that could serve as an early warning system.

Customer service
If BrandIntel identifies product questions or service complaints, they will be flagged and sent to Ford's customer-service staff. The service staff will not only be forewarned but will also be able to respond online when appropriate; they will identify themselves as Ford employees and ask permission to join any online discussions.

"It's customer service. It's just online," Mr. Crosby said.

Chrysler Group, which reupped with Brandimensions last fall, wants to know what influential auto enthusiasts are saying, said Randall McAdory, manager-business intelligence at the carmaker. "We also think these people are influential offline in everyday life" and Chrysler wants these people "to think about us."

Their buzz about a model unveiling at a high-profile auto show could affect what sort of ad messaging Chrysler Group uses when it launches the vehicle, he said. Chrysler Group may also modify a product or add features two years down the road if enough online enthusiasts say they want the change.

Measuring a blog's significance
A blog's significance is measured by the number of sites linking to it, he said. "All companies are trying to figure out which sites are significant and which people are significant and once you do that, you can begin to influence the influencers."

Brandimensions analyzes very specific attributes, more than 200 including vehicle interiors, Mr. McAdory said. Chrysler Group also gets reports on its online "buzz share" by model compared to competitive models.

Bradley Silver, president of BrandIntel, said the firm collects data for its auto clients on more than 400 nameplates and more than 200 attributes daily.

BrandIntel helped an automaker seed a new vehicle online with younger thrill seekers involved in extreme sports, he said (he declined to name the automaker). The automaker was concerned that if the model was embraced early on by more mainstream buyers, it wouldn't be seen as bona fide by the target community. Mr. Silver said BrandIntel helped the automaker develop messages that were placed on appropriate sites to reach the target, which helped shift the original buzz from "quirky-looking" to "this is a really interesting vehicle I am going to test drive."

The Toyota Division uses BuzzMetrics, said Kim McCullough, corporate manager-marketing communications of the brand. With the FJ Cruiser SUV launch, which used no traditional media, the Toyota Motor Sales USA arm wanted to know what people were saying about the vehicle online. BuzzMetrics gave the marketer "guideposts" to help convert true off-roaders into FJ advocates.

General Motors Corp.'s Len Marsico, staff director of its Media Bureau unit, said marketers aren't going to change any negative tones already present within online buzz. But, he said, "you can correct errors." In North America, GM uses Nielsen-owned BuzzMetrics to screen online tonality and Media Quotient to screen what's being said.

Online buzz "is just a natural extension of media," said Mr. Marsico. "There's just a lot more of it and it's hard to keep up with."
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