Showing posts with label Community. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Community. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In Defense of the Automotive Industry: How a Fast Company Blogger Misses Years of Engagement

This post is in response to a Fast Company blog post “Why Going Social Can Make or Break the Automotive Industry”, please read it first to gain some context: Read This First

"The automotive industry has lagged behind" in adopting social media, according to a blog by Fast Company community contributor JD Rucker. Really? Slow compared to what other industries? Tech? Well of course the tech industry is going to be the first to adopt social media, because they create the tools that make up social media. But hasn’t the clothing industry been slow to adopt social? Or the airline industry? Or the restaurant industry? I’m just not sure why this author is so quick to slam automotive for being slow to adopt, when in fact the auto industry has been very active in the space for some time.

The Industry is an Early Adopter, Not Slow to Start

Auto companies have been engaged with blogs and forums for quite a long time. One of the earliest successes of corporate blogging is General Motors with their Fastlane Blog. In fact, back in 2006 when one of the first corporate blogging books came out from author Debbie Weil, GM was prominently featured where Bob Lutz shared, "I just love getting the direct, unflitered feedback. But I also love radiating my personal opinion." Back then, GM had over 10,000 customer comments a major feat for any brand back then.

Jeep is a brand that has been at the forefront of engaging in user forums, communities and blogs. I remember back in early 2000 how Jeep was regularly working with bloggers and forum administrators on getting them to Jeep events and firing up the brand’s owners through social outreach long before any of us called this stuff “social media.” Jeep engineers did chats with forum members through round table discussions and paved the way for demonstrating social outreach, now many brands host consumer chats giving access to people inside OEMs.

Engagement from brands on Twitter has been very strong from companies like Ford, as the Fast Company post mentions, but the article overlooks Honda who has Alicia at Honda who is often cited an early example in the space mentioned along side Comcast, Dell, JetBlue, Zappos and others who were early to showcase some strong PR case studies that got other brands interested. In fact, over the past year just about every automotive brand has a presence on the site (see my automotive PR list on Twitter.)

And what about social community sites? Facebook has been a hot bed of innovation from automotive brands as Ford launched a widget for Sync back in 2007, Saturn had their I am Saturn widget in 2007, and Scion had a widget in 2008. Now there are Facebook applications across several brands in the social space over the past couple years from the Ford Fusion Speak Green app, Everybody Loves a Honda app, and Meet the Volkswagens. These are just a few and there are many, many more. Sure these are marketing efforts but they engage brand loyalists and others to attract them to brand fan pages.

Automotive fan pages do engage fans through interaction with the brand via communication of news, events and other forms of outreach. As someone who regularly watches this space, I see examples every day of brands talking to consumers on fan pages and facilitating discussions. Automotive has been engaged and continues to learn, like many industries, how to make this space more effective for consumer opinion, customer service and influence to sale.

Some brands have even taken very active steps to establish their own social communities. Here is an article I did highlighting several examples from Saturn, Mercedes and Hyundai.

The Fast Company blogger overlooks how a lot of brands, across many industries, have been slow to adopt Social Media. In fact, I’d argue most industries, outside of those in the technology field, have been much slower than automotive in this space.

What’s strange about Rucker’s article is that he should know better. He is currently the Chief Marketing Officer for TK Carsites, a company that helps dealerships with search engine optimization (SEO) among other things.

Perhaps his knowledge of OEMs and purchase cycles is not as strong has his involvement with dealer marketing? Unfortunately, his article misses how pervasive the industry has been in the social media space.

Sure not every brand instantly created a Facebook fan page, started a Twitter account on day one, talked to bloggers five or ten years ago, but neither has any other industry and just like other industries, various brands have been engaging in social media in a multitude of ways through the years. I’d argue the automotive industry has been a leader that many industries have followed, not the other way around.

So, Is the Article Right About Dealers?

As I just demonstrated, the brands have made a strong play in social media over the years, but what about Rucker’s argument about the more customer facing segment of the industry – dealers?
“Still, the one thing that every manufacturer is missing is engagement at the level that bridges the corporations with their customers -- the dealers themselves. Nobody has demonstrated an understanding of how to help their customer facing, front-line stores capable and equipped to engage with customers through social media.”
Purchase cycle from consideration, research, and purchasing is much longer than most purchases. Cars are considered purchases and take around 6-9 months on average, according to CNW, a leader in automotive marketing purchase behavior research.

Social media is designated as an awareness play by the manufacturers because it’s a great way to get people talking about your products early and may lead to interest through word of mouth in online communities and social communication.

For dealers, the question is more convoluted. Many dealers I’ve talked to are concerned about the amount of time it takes to turn engagement into a sale and feel other methods like email marketing and SEO have better Return on Investment results. Plus as Rucker should know, Internet Managers at dealerships are quite busy already handling email leads and other activities that make being regularly engaged on Twitter and Facebook hard to find time for.

Many brands I have worked with have made recommendations to dealers about social media engagement. Manufacturers can’t force dealers to do social media, but they can educate and it’s promising as social media gains notoriety that brands and dealers are actively talking about what works. Could they talk more? Of course, but it is happening with many brands.

It does sound like the new partnership TK Carsites is part of should help dealers get better in the social space and I’m sure Rucker’s expertise in this area is very valuable for those dealers willing to invest. And like a lot of industries, the investment will lead to some solid examples others are sure to notice.

The Recommendations

The article makes a few recommendations at the article’s end. Let’s take each one-by-one.

Social Networks and Blogs: The author makes a typical assumption here, but I’d argue, as would most experts on corporate blogging, that not every company should do a blog. What you have to do is determine if your company’s culture and leaders are right for engagement and if it is best for your brand to start a blog or instead engage with bloggers (of course many do both.) But there are lots of corporate blogs around from companies like Subaru, GM, Chrysler, just to name a few.

Social Network Engagement: Just about every automotive brand is on Twitter and Facebook in various capacities. Just like any industry, some companies are doing better than others. Ford, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and GM really stand out on Twitter. Jeep, Ford, GM, Honda, and BMW stand out on Facebook. Of course, engagement is key here and all brands are figuring it out still. Automotive is definitely not behind as an industry and brands are very actively engaging with consumers, advocates, and critics.

Videos: Auto manufacturers have long been producing videos online that share how products work, showcase new technologies and educate consumers on many levels. I’m not sure what Rucker searched for when browsing the web or YouTube but much of his recommendation is already massively available online and growing every day.

Search for Customers on Social Media: This is happening too, but like other examples I’ve shared above, it is happening in pockets. Of course, everyone could be much better at this; however, there have been significant changes already showcasing some great examples. One of my favorites is the @VolvoXC60 Twitter account that regularly engages with Volvo considers and owners. They are not doing customer service online but they are reaching out in the car-shopping experience, as are other brands like Ford and GM.

In Summary

I think JD Rucker probably knows most of what I’ve laid out here as he has a pretty decent blog called Soshable covering automotive and social marketing. I’m sure his article had more to do with lighting a fire under a few companies or dealers who are slow to adopt and hopefully drum up more business for the partnership he mentions.

My issue is that articles like Rucker’s do a disservice to the industry and further propagate the illusion that the automotive industry is not active or innovative in social media. Hopefully, I have demonstrated here a defense for an industry that is very engaged in social and will continue to show other industries how to do it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

BF Goodrich Runs After the Driving Enthusiast

There is an excellent site for runners that has gained some notoriety. It’s a site from Reebok called “Run Easy”. The site provides a destination where community members can talk about topics interesting to runners.

The “Run Easy” site applies some great practices for a community. It allows people to share their own experiences with other enthusiasts through the use of sharing runner routes. Runners can plot their run on a Google map in full detail, others can rate it and comment. It allows sharing of music playlists people use on their runs. Best of all, the site creates a dialog in a friendly community environment that does not push Reebok products on the participants. Reebok merely picks up the tab and gains some benefit through goodwill with less experienced runners that might some day become hardcore runners, thus possibly repositioning Reebok in more accomplished runners’ minds.

Leaving Runners in the Dust

Nation of Go, a new community site “for people who live to drive”, takes a lot of its cues from the Reebok site. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” It’s clear that Reebok is doing some very effective things in its community that could easily transfer to automotive enthusiasts.

BF Goodrich Tires is the sponsor of Nation of Go. Their implementation is about sharing the best drives and connecting with other drivers. Similar to the “create your favorite runs”, Nation of Go features track, trail and road drives for others to share and plot on a Google map. Since the site just launched this week, there are only a few drives on the map and it will be interesting to see if enthusiasts find the site and take the time to share their favorite routes.

The best part of this idea is that there is no authoritative destination for driving roads on the web, at least that I’m aware of. So, there is an opportunity for BF Goodrich to own this space. Owning a space that appeals to your customers and even competitors customers has a highly desirable impact. Even if one doesn’t own BF Goodrich tires, they are welcome in the community and may find tremendous value if road trips and racing is their passion. Down the road, BF Goodrich may become that person’s next tire through positive brand lift from the site.

Plus BF Goodrich is a brand that can be acceptable to all drivers. Having an automotive company do this may only interest its brand advocates and cause others to turn away. Mercedes, Chevy, and Audi drivers can even talk a little trash on the Nation of Go site and share in a common passion without having the barrier of it being a particular automotive company sponsored site (ie it would be odd for Mercedes owners to be frequenting a Chevy site, even if Chevy wants that.) Having this come from a tire company is far more encompassing.

There is a Forum that allows for more open topical discussions. This can serve as a place to discuss best driving music, how-to, and yes even tire tips. The possibilities are wide open and with a strong community it too can serve as great resource on the web.

Media Is Essential to Attract a Significant Membership

Yesterday, the Nation of Go team had invited some social media influencers and media to a marketing launch event. I learned of the site through some people I follow on Twitter who attended. A hashtag on Twitter #NationofGo brings back some insights into who attended and what some initial thoughts were about the idea. There is even talk of NationofGo attending Twitter’s weekly #carchat.

Beyond social media buzz and blogger outreach, it will be interesting to see how Nation of Go is promoted using digital and/or traditional media. I notice today that the BF Goodrich USA site is prominently promoting the Nation of Go on its homepage.

Nation of Go’s appeal is to a very involved automotive enthusiast or racing enthusiast and I expect to see some media from these sites to attract people who will help build such a community. Hopefully, BF Goodrich will not solely rely on word of mouth, though powerful, a community needs a significant amount of members to make it valuable and this will be a slow and arduous process if the company relies only on buzz. They'll need some media and promotion through their product marketing to help grow mass on the site.

What We Need is a Van, Dude

One way Nation of Go is getting their word out is by taking a page from Plaid Nation. Plaid Nation is a small marketing agency in the Northeast that took the road in a van (and later a Ford Flex.) Plaid Nation generated buzz by visiting various leading brands and people who were influencing technology, social media and marketing.

Similar to Plaid Nation's tour, Nation of Go is traveling in a van visiting "well-known shops and drivers" and like Plaid share their adventures on their blog. You can follow their visits via Twitter too at NationofGo. Event based marketing will hopefully gain some ongoing interest in the effort and should help gain some momentum to the story during the 20 plus day road trip.

Effective Communities are Passion Destinations

If properly supported by media, BF Goodrich may be on to something here with Nation of Go. Driving enthusiasts love finding new places to enjoy their vehicle. With some added features like adding photos to a drive, the routes could become more personal and expressive beyond just a map.

Also, right now you can only share a drive by copying a URL's text. A more fully integrated sharing using social media destinations like Facebook, Twitter or MySpace will further promote the site. I'll assume this is probably coming in the future.

It's unfortunate recreational racing isn't as popular here in the States as it is in Europe. Running is very popular, at least lately from what I can tell on Facebook with almost all of my lazy friends (self included) now posting their latest run on their status, but I rarely see a post about anyone going for a scenic drive. Anecdotal examples aside, recreational driving just isn't as big as running (or so it seems, I had trouble finding any hard research numbers.) With a much smaller enthusiast base, attracting the right people to the Nation of Go community is more difficult, not impossible, but does require some effective micro-targeted marketing buys.

All of this is a great way to get people to come to a tire company website. Beyond trying to find out what your warranty is, where a particular tire is sold, or if there is a rebate form for a recent purchase, BF Goodrich may have found a way to make visiting a tire company website a more frequent stop by appealing to their customer's passion - driving. And if they can appeal to the racing crowd and convert them to buy BF Goodrich, that's a great way to become more relevant to frequent tire buyers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

GM's LAB Invites the Common Man

General Motors recently launched a new social collaboration experiment called LAB. It sets out to gain insights from web users who are interested in the design direction and future product innovations GM is planning. It’s basically a glimpse into the design studio where concept vehicles are currently under development.

An introduction video from GM’s Manager of Advanced Design Wade Bryant shares that “The Lab is to share these ideas with a broader audience… to have an open dialogue.” This assumes that the open dialogue will further shape the end conceptual design and that GM can later claim that “x” concept vehicle was built with consumer input via The Lab’s collaborative environment; thereby, creating a better end product.

All of this reminds me of Herbert Powell, the brother of Homer Simpson, who exclaims, “I want you to design a car for all the Homer Simpsons out there.” He then gives Homer the opportunity to design a new car that would be devoid of the failings of an insular corporate culture that had become disconnected from the needs of the “Working Man.” Homer becomes the persona for all the needs and wants of that common man which ultimately leads to the unveiling of a new $82,000 car that shutters the company as its final effort to get things right only to have everything come to a bitter, misdirected end.

To be fair, GM's LAB doesn’t trust one person to make every decision; instead, it uses more of a crowdsourcing approach that seeks the inputs from many to find some consensus or unique ideas that may not have come from the internal corporate design team.

One company has applied the crowdsourcing model in automotive design to a much more radical interpretation and that is Local Motors. Local Motors is a very interesting experiment and is undergoing the real development of their Rally Fighter product, an off-road desert racer housing a BMW diesel engine. The Rally Fighter looks like what a Chevrolet Vega might have looked like today if it were to undergo decades of minor updates, you mounted a cluster of KC lights to the grille, and then gave it the ground clearance of some farm boy football player’s pickup truck. It’s a design only crowdsourcing could be proud of, definitely not a vehicle for mass appeal.

But I think LAB has little to do with true input into automotive design and more to do with perception. It shows that General Motors is listening to what most people criticize it for – not building what people want to drive. So, if you listen and open input from anyone with a computer and the ability to complete a simple registration form, no one can complain that GM is not building what people want.

Funny thing is, design isn’t GM’s issue as it has recently designed some very impressive vehicles lately: the new Camaro, GMC Acadia, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G8, Cadillac CTS and the new Chevy Malibu. Design isn’t the issue. The issue is people having a concern with long-term quality of American products and having little reason to switch from their favorite, reliable Asian car that meets their needs.

GM's LAB addresses nothing about quality, nor should it. The LAB instead is a Public Relations move to show that GM is listening and adjusting to consumer input.

I’m sure The Lab will affect future concepts so someone can point to the success of the project, but if this was really about collaboration to drive vehicle design The Lab would be more focused in its conversational execution. What I mean by that is the feedback on a vehicle would be topical and focus on particular elements of the design instead of being the free for all comment thread that is currently under each design study.

If we look at Local Motors and how they foster discussion, they host a Forum area that looks at unique steps across the vehicle development process. Discussions around design studies, chassis, wheel size, and other vehicle attributes focuses the commentaries around distinct areas that can be elaborated on further. Plus the Local Motors execution attracts vehicle designers instead of just the common workingman, allowing for less cheerleading for a brand and more serious commentary on design.

So in the end it’s essentially a Public Relations move to show GM is listening to those who criticize its vehicle development decisions. Whether it nets any real design impact will be purely accidental.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Brand Initiated Automotive Online Communities In Practice

Forrester Research’s Jeremiah K. Owyang released a whitepaper last week titled “Community Launch Checklist: Creating A Pragmatic Approach To Launching An Onine Community.” It covers some strategic recommendations on how a company should best prepare before embarking on an online community.

There really isn’t anything revolutionary in the white paper, nor should there be, since it is meant as a simple checklist. It’s your typical stuff:

  • Define clear business goals and benchmarks to track success or failure
  • Prepare the organization so it knows its responsibilities both time and budget.
  • Research your competition
  • Define a process for participating and/or monitoring the community
  • Find the right technology implementation that fits your business objectives
  • Promote the community similar to how you promote any new product launch

Unfortunately, the article is light on any examples of companies using online communities. It does, in passing, mention Mattel’s “The Playground”, Microsoft’s Channel 9, MGM’s Facebook group, Dell’s support community and MyStarbucksIdea.

The good news for readers of this blog is that I have been actively engaging with three automotive brands that have started some very elaborate online communities. The three are Mercedes Benz’s Generation Benz, Hyundai’s Think Tank and Saturn’s ImSaturn. Here is a chart breaking down some differences and similarities across the communities:

As you can see from the examples, different companies make different content choices -- hopefully based on different strategies. It is also important to note that only one has a relatively significant media buy to promote its community, and that is ImSaturn. The Hyundai and Mercedes communities were promoted (from what I can gather) through invitations from their customer data, email-marketing data, and they allow members to invite friends. ImSaturn is promoted through their CRM data too, but they also have had media placements and promoted their content on social networking sites like Facebook where they also have a related Fan Page and Facebook application promoting the site.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Let’s get this out of the way now. The number one objective of all these sites should be to sell more cars or accessories. That doesn’t mean you measure sales against site membership numbers; rather, the sites should be about brand building by getting people more engaged with the brand through content, relationships with company staff and other enthusiasts, and should energize members through event promotions or exclusive chats. All of these activities strengthen the relationship between the customer and the community’s membership, which in turn should result in more purchases from a brand the community members have built a stronger relationship with thus leading to better loyalty retention numbers.

All three sites are clearly trying to energize their members to become vocal advocates for the brand; though, at different levels. And, by definition, if the sites create stronger advocates for the brand they will share their experiences with others, buy more products from your company, and hopefully persuade their social network to consider the brand.

Other goals include traditional market research objectives. Here Mercedes and Hyundai implementations are more aligned to these activities. They are leading the conversation through polls, discussions, and activities. Much like a virtual focus group, the two communities gather feedback from members and use that research outside of the community or they participate in discussions by responding to member comments. I tend to look at this type of effort as a way to do quick research without all the hassle of having to setup focus groups, which can be quite expensive and time consuming. Instead the benefit here is that you have this group you can bounce questions off of, provided they are the right target(s) you are wanting to engage with and provided there are enough that stay active in the community.

Saturn’s Ning

Saturn has made a stronger push to get owners to communicate with each other by allowing friending, member photo galleries, and most importantly letting members start their own groups and discussion topics. The ImSaturn site is modeled after a Facebook social community approach. Why do I say this, because the site has a very similar layout to a social community site like Ning. It also is big in creating social networks within the community; whereas, Mercedes and Hyundai are more about members being led into discussions with a company’s staff. Saturn is essentially trying to create its own social network that borrows from things that make automotive forums attractive: photo posting, public profiles, comments on member pages, having your own mailbox, and getting members to create friendships with others.

I haven’t researched the level of activity on Saturn auto enthusiast forums but they do exist. I was originally a bit surprised ImSaturn was built the way it was. It seemed to me Saturn could’ve just joined a large Saturn community that already exists and engage that way, basically Listen.

When I joined the community it had 600 members so it seemed like a lot of effort and cost to grow a community to a critical mass. Fortunately, they do have a decent size community that is now over 5,000 members, but it has taken nearly two years to do that and I’m sure at a decent cost. Seems to me they could’ve just plugged into existing communities and engaged that way at a lesser cost; though, they would’ve lost some insights, though that depends on what they were looking to get from ImSaturn and that I don’t know since I’m not part of the internal team.

Going back through my communications from the ImSaturn site, there is really nothing more than some public relations communications and some event promotion. All of this could’ve been done through their Facebook site and by engaging with existing online Saturn fan forums. So, it is unclear what strategic advantage the ImSaturn site really provides.

Consumer Insights at Your Fingertips

Mercedes and Hyundai are clearly building virtual focus groups where they can gather quick marketing insights from their members. This is very different from the social community approach of ImSaturn, where the emphasis is on social. Most interesting, Generation Benz has a particular membership requirement and that is you must be under 30 years old, since they are interested in aspirational opinions about their brand and products. Hyundai is open to all ages. Neither community restricts non-owners; even though, a lot of the content on Hyundai is very owner focused. I’m sure they divide poll results by owner/non-owner as well as other demographic data.

The company’s marketing representatives also lead both communities. The moderators start all discussion topics. When you enter either site, you are required to respond to survey questions that look to get feedback about new products, possible future products, and/or get your thoughts on current marketing efforts.

Even though the two sites are marketing department driven and are really about getting research to help assist marketing plans, they do try to energize their membership. One way that is done is through having fun polls or questionnaires that try to get more psychographic profiles about members. Sure this is used by the marketing team, but it is also a way to make the community appear more fun. Does it work? Possibly, I’m way too much of an industry person to be objective.

What’s In It for the Members?

So what keeps people coming back? Of course there are many reasons, but there are several that exist.

  • First Finder Fame: Getting exclusive information before others outside the community.
  • Brand Relationship Factor: Establish a personal relationship with a brand you like
  • Community Friendship Factor: By establishing “friends” within the community, engagement with like-minded people keeps people coming back
  • Rewards: Special offers. Hyundai recently gave members a special code for buying their cars at discount.
  • Support Reasons: Look to communities as a way to get support information for the product they own or are interested in owning.

It is interesting looking across all three communities and seeing how people interact within. Harvard Business Review did an excellent article on how people interact within communities identifying 18 roles, and those same behaviors exist on all three of these sites. There are a couple roles that dominate these marketing based, company-sponsored communities.

Every community is full of “Learners” who seek out information to improve their knowledge of the products. “Storytellers” permeate membership also as many share their ownership stories through words or photos, especially on a site like ImSaturn that encourages such behaviors.

But it takes regular engagement and the creation of fresh and interesting content by community administrators to keep the conversations going. Mercedes and Hyundai are enabling new conversation topics all the time, the only issue I see is that the discussions are more for the brand marketing team’s purpose and less for the benefit of the members. Most activities involve watching commercials and this of course can get boring quickly and cause member drop-off; hence, the idea of giving content to appeal to first find fame by letting the membership see content only available on the community before releasing it to the public, but this is a rather weak benefit that only appeals to hardcore brand advocates.

To involve more than just the hardcore members, Mercedes’ site will actually send out reminders via email saying inactivity will get you removed from the community and that one needs to login soon to remain a participant. Other sites like Hyundai’s sends out email communication that are less threatening. They simply invite me to see new content or invite me to participate in a coming product chat that hopefully appeals to my interest. I have participated in chats with product specialists on both sites and there seems to be only about 20 or so members on Mercedes chats I’ve been on. Hyundai, because it is open to a larger audience, has a slightly larger turnout, but not much better.

Direct, Responsive Access to People Inside Your Company Is Your Advantage

Engaging with the community is an active process. The people who join a manufacturer’s community expect fast responses and respect for information they seek. One member of the Generation Benz website made a statement after a moderator switch occurred last month. Referring to the prior moderator, he was highly satisfied with the moderator’s quick responses and how he would respond to any question no matter how crazy.

It takes a serious commitment of time and knowledge from the company to find the right people to actively engage with the community’s users. Owyang talks a lot about developing proper processes for positive and negative events that will happen. Knowing how to respond before something does happen will lead to a more effective experience for everyone.

The users expect engagement and this personal relationship with brand representatives is an appeal the enthusiasts’ forums don’t provide, as a brand this is your community's strategic advantage. Use it well and you can build a great reputation with your participants.

In Closing

Before embarking on a community site, brands would benefit from the Forrester article (and the Harvard Business Review article too.) There are some fundamental items you need to consider before engaging with existing communities or starting your own online community space. Oh, and don’t forget to have a strategist as part of your team.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Generation Bling

Social media is all the rage in digital marketing these days with companies venturing out to FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, and even creating their own community web sites. What approach a manufacturer takes should depend on what goals they want to accomplish with social media and the brand must understand how their customers behave on the web.

One experiment is Generation Benz, an online community established for “an invited group of Gen Y netizens to open up about the brand.” In fact, when I tried to register for the site -- using my real demographics -- I was not accepted. A fellow co-worker had informed me he had a similar issue and “got in” when he completed a profile as a 29 year old. So, keep trying to sign-up if you want to take a peak at the site.

According to Mercedes-Benz USA VP/Marketing Stephen Cannon, “Our Generation-Benz community is a natural extension of our desire to broaden the Mercedes-Benz family, and establish a dialogue with future buyers to guide us with the design of our vehicles and direction of our brand."

So we know Mercedes is interested in taping into their aspirational customers and after spending weeks on the site they are doing a lot of consumer research, online focus group engagement.

Unfortunately, I cannot share content screen shots from the community due to the community’s participant legal agreement that I accepted:

In addition, except as provided in this Agreement, you may not copy, modify, translate, reproduce, publish, broadcast, transmit, distribute, perform, display, license, sell, or create derivative works from any Member Content or any other content appearing on or through the Service.

That said, I can definitely describe what content is presented on Generation Benz. Mercedes is doing several things to engage. Whether they are the right thing to connect with 20-somethings is another thing all together. There are consumer opinion polls where you can vote on how an interior palette makes you feel. One discussion asked users to share their opinion on competing Lexus and Mercedes Benz commercials currently running for the RX350 and M-Class SUVs. None of this really sounds all that compelling to a Gen Y audience but they are getting some participation on the site, particularly when it comes to new and future product content. I should state that community members can "suggest a topic".

A private community is definitely the right strategic approach for Mercedes based on the demographic they are targeting and the type of engagement they are doing. Finding the right topics though seems to be a struggle since this is a marketing organization that starts the discussions, topics are not user-generated which probably reduces usage.

One of the best behaviors on the site is the engagement from Mercedes’ staff that really participates with the community members, making the community feel they have the ability impact the brand’s decisions. Their email communications also encourage participation and repeat visits (see image to the right.)

Without access to primary data showing how effective the site is with attracting repeat visitors, it is difficult to know how well the community is doing. After evaluating all of the current discussion threads on the site, it is clear repeat visits are low and there are only two dominant users of the site with over 300 posts each, others who post tend to have less than 10 posts. Active users only appear to include maybe 20 or so participants, at least across all forum comment sections.

One way it could improve engagement is by giving users a reason to participate. “Consumers have to have some incentive to share their thoughts, opinions and experiences on a company Web site,” according to the Wall Street Journal. There is no incentive on the site. Some things that could improve that include:

The site does give users an indicator showing how many posts they have done. Post indicators provide a visual "game" on community boards which leads to an increase of usage. An indicator should also move people to new levels like newbie, contributor, expert, et cetera as a way to show degrees of engagement. Believe it or not, this stuff actually works in communities as some users view it as a fame reward.

Other incentives could include cash incentives or product promotions, which could include Mercedes lifestyle discounts for apparel. Or really encourage participation by offering a Generation Benz logo hat or t-shirt that could further promote the site to the user’s personal network, make them feel special and that they have exclusive access to the brand.

All in all, the Generation Benz web site is a good example of a community site from an automotive company with a very clear set of goals, reaching out to a target audience they want to engage. It just seems like the site moderators need to find more relevant topics for their users, and less for their marketing department's purposes. They also could benefit by rewarding users with incentives to participate more.