By JOHN D. STOLL
Typical focus group: airtight room, white walls, moderators, No. 2 pencils, ambiguous questionnaires, a coffee break, lunch if you’re lucky. Result: Pontiac Aztek, et al.
“What focus groups say they would really like in their next car is not reliable, because they are, in the research, not really paying for it,” according to a now-legendary memo to General Motors brass from product development boss Bob Lutz.
Automakers aren’t giving up focus groups, but some are finding better ways to listen to, or in on, the thoughts of people who really care about the brand in question via Internet chat rooms and e-bulletin boards.
Nissan did just that the day it started showing its 350Z concept at auto shows, says Fred Suckow, senior manager of 350Z marketing. Nissan began combing sites such as www.z-car.com
(“Gary’s House of Z”), www.freshalloy.com
(the destination for Nissan enthusiasts) and www.zcca.org
(official website of the Z Car Club Association) to scope the skinny on Z’s resurrection.
Although Nissan floated photos and specifications for the Z, it stayed away from posting any messages. Then Suckow’s minions sat back and monitored reaction.
“Here are my four things,” wrote one visitor to www.zdriver.com
in April 2001 after seeing photos and viewing the concept car at an auto show. “Front intake needs to be more aggressive. Headlamps should be more scooped or horizontal. Back end needs to be slimmed down. A little more glass on the cockpit.”
Karthik Iyer, who leads business development for Intelliseek, a company that monitors web buzz for a number of automakers, says unsolicited feedback from true enthusiasts is sometimes the best advice.
Intelliseek helps corporations act as a “fly on the wall,” he says, identifying the most influential voices in chat rooms and on message boards. The company organizes relevant and reliable feedback and provides it to clients seeking information on everything from new vehicle development and current vehicle improvements to what fans of the competition are saying.
For example, on a project for Lincoln, Intelliseek found the top complaint of LS owners was a lack of trunk space. People who didn’t buy the LS said the same thing.
Currently, the research firm is evaluating buzz surrounding next year’s Mazda RX-8. Much like the 350Z, the RX-8 has an enthusiast following and Mazda is particularly interested in collecting data on the car’s strengths, weaknesses, potential and acceptance, says Mazda spokesman Kevin Everhart.
A perusal of enthusiast sites such as www.rx-8forum.com
and rotarynews.com should give Mazda a good read. One enthusiast suggests that the prototype “doesn’t look enough like the 7,” another laments the shade of yellow shown in Detroit is rumored unavailable on the production versions. Yet another begs Mazda to “just accidentally ‘leak’ a tidbit here or there to keep the rotor-heads fed.”
One of the more popular auto enthusiast sites, www.vwvortex.com,
has a direct link with the manufacturer while remaining independent. The site attracts thousands of snippets of chat per day and Volkswagen closely monitors what’s being jawed about, says VW spokesman Tony Fouladpour. Topics range from owner’s lifestyle to repair tips, from VW-owned Bugatti to VW’s first sport/utility vehicle, the Touareg.
“This is the first SUV I would consider purchasing,” insists one visitor. “If you don’t offer a manual transmission, I will not purchase one.” Twenty-three others weighed in on a manual Touareg, most wanting one in the U.S. market.
Recently, VW used the site to gauge interest in a special edition GTI 337 based on the 25th Anniversary edition GTI sold in Europe. VW of America saw an opportunity to capitalize on the outpouring of U.S. enthusiasm for the car, especially expressed on vwvortex.com, according to Fouladpour.
“You guys asked for it,” reads VW’s 337 online ordering guide, “that’s why we gave our enthusiasts first crack at getting their hands on a GTI 337.”
And you thought nobody was listening.