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Monday, June 02, 2008 

Vol. 4 No. 6

Couldn’t Have Said it Near as Good Myself…

A reprint of “The untapped power of owner communities” by Jesse Pickard in the “Headlight: “Digital Automotive Trends and Insights from Avenue A/Razerfish” Blog

Given a very hectic month or so, it’s been a while since I wrote anything in this blog, or have even had the chance to attend some industry events I regretfully missed lately (my loss, automotive fleet and remarketing events are the most informative in the industry and the people attending are the best in the business). I ran across a recent blog however, that was so well done, and spoke on an issue so prevalent on my mind recently, that I thought, with approbation, I’d reprint it in its entirety. Jesse Picard’s observations are not only accurate and insightful, but are far more "literate" presented than my ramblings and come from an authority.

Needless to say I like Jesse’s observations on Mini’s “Owner Lounge” and agree with his conclusions. See what you think.

May 2008: Social influence marketing

The untapped power of owner communities

When it comes to shopping for a car, few things are more influential than the opinion of an actual car owner. A trusted opinion can instantly crush or inflate a consumer’s confidence in a vehicle. Third-party automotive sites recognize this influence by prominently featuring the opinions of car owners through features like user reviews, ratings and discussion boards.

MINI’s Owner Lounge encourages sharing the “motoring” culture

Interestingly, most automaker sites have steered clear from featuring car owner content. As it stands, a vehicle site is usually comprised of one-sided messages that tend to be met by skepticism by empowered shoppers. If a consumer can instantly see what current owners think of the vehicle they are considering, why even pay attention to brand messaging? This has become more apparent as automakers continue to describe their new offerings as the “fastest,” “safest” and “most powerful.” In the mind of the consumer, an OEM site is just a place where the latest raw information is hosted. It is a great place for specifications, but does not actually “sell cars.” In order to become a true selling engine, automakers must use Social Influence Marketing to unearth trusted owner opinions on their vehicle sites.

Step one: Evolving the owners section
The opportunity for automaker sites to fully harness the power of social influence starts with evolving their owner sections, home to a powerful, but dormant, community of current customers. In its present form, the owner’s section is a place to do things like make monthly payments online and schedule maintenance. This might appear sufficient, but the prevalence of online driving clubs indicates that car owners are highly active in online communities and would appreciate a more immersive, social experience. It also shows that there is a strong culture around each car to tap into. The next-generation of owner’s sections is a social network first and a tool second. Mini does this with its Owner’s Lounge, where drivers can connect with one another, post car-related events and share pictures. The entire lounge evokes the playful and hip Mini culture. The Owner’s Lounge also dedicates a section to promoting driving clubs that have developed organically. Recognizing these organic communities is a small, but critical step in the evolution of an owner’s section. Mini could even improve their Owner’s Lounge by offering deeper integration of organic communities. Given the guaranteed traffic from the current set of tools, automakers should be able to quickly develop the critical mass needed for a powerful car community if the tone and feature-set is specific to the car brand’s culture.

Step two: Connecting owners and shoppers
Creating a vibrant owner community is a difficult, yet highly rewarding task. Once up and running, a community will offer customer insights that are often unattainable through traditional forms of market research. For this reason, it is easy to be satisfied with an insular community of owners. But at this point the job is only half-done; your owners might have produced very positive and persuasive content in the owner’s community, but as it stands new shoppers can’t see any of it. In order to maximize the ROI of community investments, automakers must integrate what are currently two silos: owners and shoppers. If done well, the integration will feel natural because car shoppers are desperately in need of objective sources of expertise, and that’s what the owner’s community possesses.

Integrating the owner and shopper silos means building connective features that exist both on the owner’s site and more importantly, in prominent areas of vehicle shopping pages. A baseline example is a feature that allows shoppers to ask questions about car models to registered owners of those models within the community. Owner opinions can also used in a way to support brand messaging.

For instance, if an automaker is looking to communicate that a truck can handle the winter elements, it should surface the opinions of car owners from the northern-most states. Maybe this exists as a photo album of owner’s trucks tackling the most extreme conditions or perhaps it’s a winter off-roading guide that owners have collaborated to create. Essentially, almost any message can be communicated through owners. And as the owner’s community grows, more innovative features can be created.

Step three: Sustaining the community
The next-generation of owner’s sections is ever-evolving and unpredictable. It requires continuous attention and dedicated resources, primarily in the form of community managers, who are responsible for the maintaining the health of the community. An experienced community management team knows how to energize users with new features and quell firestorms that erupt from member discontent. They also can be responsible for distilling user insights and advocating the interests of members to corporate stakeholders. The role of the community manager is especially pivotal during the initial stages of community development.

Lastly, to sustain an owner’s community, automakers must maintain an unyielding commitment to authenticity. This means that the automaker must be comfortable with having negative owner statements surfaced and transferred to new shoppers. Any manipulation or censorship of this content risks the entire value proposition of all community offerings. In fact, the presence of negative content is needed to establish immediate trust in both owners and new shoppers.

With community management and authenticity established as two cornerstones, the community efforts are poised to flourish. There will undoubtedly be speed bumps and hiccups, but they are fully worth it as tapping into the social influence of vehicle owners will transform the OEM site from a one-way advertisement to a highly-persuasive selling engine.

–Jesse Pickard

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Hey John,

Thanks for your post. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope an OEM will start to bring some of it to life soon. It is a huge opportunity.


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