December 4, 2012, 9:46 AM

Nissan drives consumers online during a racing reality show

The brand engages with consumers who watch TV with a second screen on hand.

Amy Dusto

Associate Editor

Lead Photo

Car manufacturer Nissan’s GT Academy reality show pits consumers—who qualify by playing a video game online—against one another on a race track for the chance to win a spot on a real Nissan racing team. And for all those left watching on TV, Nissan offers a way to share in some of the first-person experience of driving those race cars, a technology that could represent a small step toward selling cars online.

At certain points during the GT Academy show, a prompt appears at the bottom of the screen asking viewers to go online and participate in a poll or quiz, read more about the cars and driving, watch behind-the-scenes footage or launch a video compacting into two minutes the whole show experience—from gearing up, getting in the car and racing—in a first-person view, says Scot Cottick, senior manager, interactive marketing, at Nissan North America.

The campaign, developed by digital marketing agency Critical Mass, is “meant to take you inside that racing community and put you behind the wheels of our best products,” he says. “Let the user touch it and feel it, get beyond clicks and swipes and get them in the car.”

Nissan is making use of the fact that more and more consumers watch TV with a second screen—a laptop, tablet or smartphone—within reach, Cottick says. Though this is the second year of GT Academy airing on TV, the interactive campaign is still nascent, he says.  Nissan would not disclose metrics about how the campaign has impacted sales, and is collecting data primarily to learn how consumers interact with multiple devices.

The interactive campaign follows Nissan’s development of a tool that lets a consumer virtually explore a car by standing in front of a screen and moving around, using Microsoft Corp.’s Kinect gaming system. Users can explore the car fully inside and out, including opening doors and the trunk by placing their hands in front of on-screen icons and pushing the seats up and down. The program runs offline via a custom PC with a Kinect system and a monitor, Cottick says, though it is web-enabled in order to receive updates.

That tool, also developed by Critical Mass, came about last year as Nissan prepared to feature a car that wasn’t yet available in prototype at a major auto show, Cottick says. Instead of bringing the car, Nissan arrived at the show with the virtual reality system, displayed on a 40-by-50-foot monitor.

Now 15 dealerships in the country are using the virtual reality system in their showrooms, and at least one consumer bought a car after checking it out virtually, Cottick says. However, not all U.S. Nissan dealers are crazy about it, he says, because it can take time to learn to operate and many consumers still prefer to test real, available cars. Nonetheless, he figures the technology may become a hit in European car dealerships, which are more pressed for space.

“There is huge syndication value here,” he says. “We’ve developed an experience that can be ported, cut up, fitted however you like to a web site, cross-device, cross-channel, to an auto show or a store.”

Eventually, the system will be able to scale out to other devices, such as home computers, video game systems or smartphones, and with further functionality, such as virtual test drives, he says. That, Cottick adds, may enable consumers to one day recreate the entire car buying process from their living rooms and buy vehicles online.

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