When Kia Motors Corp.
begins building the 2012 Optima this month at its West
Point, Ga., plant, the automaker will incorporate
redesigned -- and cushier -- seats into the midsize
sedan, merely a year after Kia launched an all-new
version of the Optima in the United States.
While improved lumbar
support lacks the sex appeal of spoilers, alloy wheels
or -- let's be honest -- the 274-horsepower turbocharged
engine in the Optima SX, the Optima's redesigned seats
nonetheless represent a major shift in automotive
The South Korea-based
automaker decided to modify the seat design after
noticing a groundswell of complaints from consumers and
automotive writers percolating on the Internet.
Kia, which uses
business-intelligence software to monitor online
comments about its vehicles, saw the Internet chatter
about seat comfort and determined that it was "a bigger
issue than we had anticipated," explains Kia's Michael
From there, Sprague adds,
"the fix was pretty quick."
With social media, "you can have a focus group
of a hundred or a thousand people versus 10 or
20" plus, "you can do it almost in
"And in our world, for an
automotive company to do something that quickly is
almost unheard of," says Sprague, who is vice president,
marketing and communications, for Kia Motors America.
"In most companies, it's
like, 'OK, there's a problem, we'll fix that in the next
refresh,' whether it's minor or major. And it could be
three to five or seven years out."
Indeed, Kia's nimble
response to the seat-comfort issue may be unprecedented
for an automaker. But Kia isn't the only car company
that views the vast sea of online chatter in social
networks, discussion boards, blogs and online
communities as a potential goldmine of product ideas --
free R&D, if you will.
"We believe that
listening to the customers online is a tremendous
opportunity to better shape our future product and
company strategy," says Scott Kelly, digital marketing
Ford Motor Co.
Like Kia, Ford pays close
attention to what people are saying about its brands on
popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter,
and elsewhere on the Web. But Ford has taken it a step
further by inviting consumers to submit their ideas
directly to the automaker, on a website called
allows consumers to post their ideas about existing or
potential Ford vehicles, as well as comment and vote on
other consumers' ideas. Based on the type of suggestion,
Ford routes the ideas to the appropriate
"It could happen in the
shower. It could happen at the grocery store while
deciding between one- or two-ply napkins. Most likely,
it'll happen when you're driving," the website teases.
"A great idea pops into
your head about how to make your Ford even better. Don't
keep it to yourself. Post and read ideas here.
"You never know," the
website continues, "your idea could become the next big
thing at Ford!"
A Floating Car in Ford's
Since Ford launched the
"Your Ideas" page in April 2010, the automaker has
received more than 4,000 ideas from consumers -- running
the gamut from one woman's desire for a dog-friendly SUV
to one man's wish for a floating car (to survive the
floodwaters of a hurricane).
There are no bad ideas,
emphasizes Ford's Rick Novak. But Novak, cross-vehicle
strategy manager for the automaker, admits that "not all
4,000 ideas make the cut, so to speak."
"We have 4,000 ideas, but
a lot of them could be duplicates, and so we try to
bundle them up so they're properly evaluated," Novak
says. "We put them into key buckets like convenience,
safety or infotainment, and then based on those we
evaluate the best ideas that are bubbling up out of
those core buckets, if you will."
The "Your Ideas" page
isn't a PR ploy, though. Ford is seriously considering
several ideas received on the website, Novak says, while
several other suggestions have served as validation for
ideas that Ford already had in the works.
As for specific examples,
Novak says he's "sworn to secrecy."
While Novak points out
that "Your Ideas" is just one of many inputs in Ford's
product-development process, he says the daily feedback
from consumers "clearly has been a bonus and a value-add
to the process."
"Obviously it gives us a
little bit more flexibility on reading the market and
understanding the market and wants and needs," Novak
The New Focus Group
With four new-model
launches slated for 2012, Nissan Motor Co. is in a
growth mode this year. That is, the automaker is trying
to grow its fan base on social media sites such as
Facebook and Twitter so it can squeeze the "maximum
impact" out of them when it launches the new models next
year, explains Nissan's Erich Marx.
Like most -- if not all
-- of the major automakers, Nissan has come to view
social media as an essential marketing tool. It's not
hard to see why. A recent survey by the
Research Center's Internet & American Life Project
found that 65% of adult Internet users are on social
networking sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and
But there's an evolution
underway. For Nissan, which manages three Twitter
streams and a half-dozen Facebook pages for its vehicle
social media is becoming the de facto mechanism to
receive and resolve customer-service issues.
Nissan also is dabbling
with using social media as a research tool. In August,
the automaker invited Facebook fans to suggest names for
a new optional interior package for the Nissan Cube.
Prior to the advent of social media, Nissan might have
convened a focus group for such a task, Marx notes.
"From a research
standpoint, I would say we have our toe in the pool,"
Marx says, noting that Nissan routes the consumer
comments received on its social networking sites to its
product-planning teams. "We've been having fun with
[social media] so far by crowdsourcing."
A little fun aside, Marx
sees social media as a means to conduct "some real,
hard-core research" down the road.
on social media:
"The brands that are listening, that are willing
to leverage it and be open to the power of it, I
think they're going to be more than a step
"With 300,000 people
following us on our
Facebook] page, we certainly have a relevant sample
from a statistical standpoint," Marx says. "And I
believe that will be the way social media is used in the
As a tool for gleaning
customer preferences and ideas, social media has some
advantages over the focus group and other methods, Kia's
In a focus group, an
outspoken participant sometimes can influence the
opinions of other group members. That's not an issue
online, where people typically are less inhibited and
more likely to express raw, unbiased opinions about your
And then there's the
issue of logistics.
"[With social media], you
can have a focus group of a hundred or a thousand people
versus 10 or 20," Sprague says. "I have sat through so
many focus groups when I'm the guy behind the mirror
just eating M&Ms and watching people talk about either
products or marketing. Now you can do it almost in
Could social media
feedback someday replace the focus group in the
Probably not, asserts
Ford's Kelly, who emphasizes that "when you're investing
the kind of money we invest in products," a rigorous,
multifaceted approach to product development is
Still, social media "has
widened the aperture for us to get input from our
customers," Kelly says.
'Fly on the Wall'
As automakers and other
companies pay closer attention to the Internet chatter
about their brands, a cottage industry is emerging to
help them scour the web and aggregate the ocean of
online comments into actionable data.
BuzzMetrics software, for example, promises to deliver
"meaningful consumer insights and real-time market
intelligence" gleaned from nearly 100 million blogs,
discussion boards and other "consumer-generated media"
platforms, according to the company's website.
WiseWindow's MOBI (Mass Opinion Business Intelligence)
software leverages "cloud computing, proprietary deep
website crawling, relevance recognition and statistical
natural-language analysis" to predict consumer
purchasing intent and behavior, according to
In layman's terms: "We're
basically the proverbial fly on the wall, just sitting
there listening in on all these conversations that
consumers start on their own," explains Marshall
Toplansky, president of Irvine, Calif.-based WiseWindow,
whose clients include Cisco and Kia.
With MOBI, a company can
plug in any search term or combination of terms --
whether it's related to the company or its competitors
-- and the software combs all publicly available Web
pages containing user-generated comments to find any
mention of the term.
The data can be sliced
and diced in myriad ways. For example, MOBI can provide
an index of the 500 most talked-about cars for the week,
and show how much of the chatter for each vehicle was
positive and negative.
The software enables
users to drill down to each individual URL containing
commentary about the desired search term, allowing them
to view each and every comment -- if they have the time
Such insights into
consumer sentiment, says WiseWindow's Kevin Everhart,
can drive product development and demand forecasting.
Everhart points to the
online buzz about the Honda Element -- which Honda
recently put out to pasture -- as a prime example.
"That's a vehicle that
has a pretty strong loyalty following, so people online
were saying, 'What am I going to buy now? I need
something that's going to carry my stuff and my big
dogs' and whatever else they have," says Everhart, who
is WiseWindow's lead analyst for the auto industry. "And
then you could see that people were starting to discuss
what other vehicles are out there that can meet their
needs. Is it an SUV? Is it a crossover?
"From an R&D perspective,
[that might prompt you to ask], 'What's the need here?
And what are the vehicles that we have in our current
lineup that meet those needs? And does it warrant maybe
another vehicle down the road that we want to
Down the road, the tools
that companies use to analyze the vast tapestry of
online conversation might change, just as the social
networking tools may change "depending on who's built
the better mousetrap," says Nissan's Marx.
But using social media to
make "real business decisions is absolutely the future,"
"I don't know what form
it's going to take 10 years from now, but this is the
way people are going to communicate," Marx says. "This
is the way people are going to get information. This is
the way people are going to give information.
"The brands that are
listening, that are willing to leverage it and be open
to the power of it, I think they're going to be more
than a step ahead."