NASHVILLE -- Can more than a million online Nissan fans be wrong about the future?
This summer, Nissan brand managers will begin asking followers on Facebook, Pinterest and other media for help in planning future products.
Erich Marx, Nissan's director of interactive and social media marketing, believes the online world might be a kind of immediate focus group, giving feedback to specific questions that managers and planners are contemplating.
"We want to take our social media engagement to the next level," Marx says. "We have all these people following us who are obviously interested in what we're doing and where we're going. The next level in that relationship will be to get their input on where we should go."
In the first trial, he says, Nissan will ask what range of vehicle and technology choices followers will expect from automakers in the coming 10 years. If that goes well, more specific product questions could be posed.
Involving the online world in product planning is a break from the norm. Market research usually is done under controlled conditions, often through focus groups selected for specific reasons. A traditional consumer focus group can take weeks to orchestrate and interpret.
And product planning is normally conducted under wraps for competitive reasons.
Social media is anything but controlled or confidential. Facebook communications go viral in a heartbeat, and online communication has grown popular because it spreads information rather than concealing it.
Marx says the Internet is not the place to discuss confidential future design ideas. But he believes there is an untapped value in talking to consumers who have declared themselves fans of the brand. Two years ago, Nissan had about 190,000 Facebook fans. Today, nearly 1 million people say they like Nissan on Facebook. Almost 1 million consumers follow the brand via Google+ and Twitter.
"We've grown our social audience very quickly," he says. "We think there's a way to harness that as we move forward. If a year from now, all we're doing is posting cool product videos for them to look at, I think we will have missed an opportunity."