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Toyota has learned a lot about interactivity since creating a private forum on Prodigy six months ago. But the automaker admits it's only at the beginning of the learning curve.

Since its inception in mid-April, Toyota Motor Sales USA has logged more than 13,000 responses to the area, leading to about 500 sales. But while the automaker is pleased with the response, it's even more enthusiastic about its ability to track transactions.

"What's critical is that we're only now learning about what works and what doesn't in interactive media," said Jim Pisz, national direct response manager at Toyota. "The learning curve is significant and the value of what you can understand now will be significantly greater in the future."

Toyota was the first automotive company to build a private online forum, allowing only Prodigy users who own Toyotas to enter the area by inputting their vehicle identification number. (Those who don't own a Toyota are invited to fill out an online survey and request a brochure.)

Once signed on to Toyota Interactive, as the area is called, owners can choose from a menu of services like Caring for Your Toyota, offering online fix-it brochures and information on warranties and accessories; Owner Services, featuring materials on insurance, financing and auto clubs; and Sneak Preview, which gives owners a look at future models.

But providing information is only half of the game. Toyota also hoped to cultivate relationships between owners and company personnel-from mechanics to factory man-agers to corporate executives to dealers.

However, Toyota recently discontinued a 6-month test of the Toyota Talk bulletin board, a key part of the automaker's effort to start a dialogue with owners.

"The nature of online sets high expectations in people-that they should get direct response really quickly, and we don't have an unlimited supply of manpower to answer all that," Mr. Pisz acknowledged.

And it's that strain on manpower that has bred complaints from Toyota Interactive users that company executives are sometimes slow to respond and that some information was outdated. Articles posted in October on the Toyota Today option were often dated as far back as April, for example.

"That's one of our real problems on Prodigy. Once you come online it takes a significant internal human resource infrastructure to keep things current, and we're really struggling with that. We're trying to move that function into our public relations area, but it takes time and money to do that," said Mr. Pisz.

Despite its setbacks, Toyota did use the bulletin board to conduct product research.

"We'd basically throw questions out there on the bulletin board that were carefully constructed and analyzed," said Ian Beavis, exec VP-managing director at Toyota's agency, Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Pacific, Torrance, Calif. "Bulletin boards are wonderful things. There is two-way communication and both ends can be impressed by the sorts of questions and responses that are being posted."

Approximately 100 notes were posted daily on Toyota's board, said bulletin board leader Brian Williams. Now, when people attempt to sign on to the Toyota Talk board, they are automatically connected to Prodigy's general automotive bulletin board.

In an effort to again be more proactive in its interactive marketing efforts, Toyota is sending 500,000 Prodigy subscribers an offer for a free computer disc, designed by Mackrel Inc., Toronto, promoting a "virtual walk" around the redesigned Tercel. A CD-ROM featuring information on Toyota's entire line should also be available in December. And interactive kiosks are being designed for auto shows and possibly dealerships.

The automaker will be the next advertiser on NBC's area on America Online (AA, Oct. 17) and plans to build a customized Internet service that would let users download commercials and search a digital library.

Observers commend Toyota for its work on interactivity.

"Toyota has made great efforts and strides in trying all different interactive media. They are very much a model to what other clients should be doing," said Leslie Laredo, director of advertising development at Ziff-Davis Interactive, Cambridge, Mass."The fact that Toyota is experimenting and spending money and making mistakes puts them well ahead on the road to getting it big time."

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