mercedes benz logoStill running focus groups? How very 20th century. An increasing number of organizations have moved consumer research online. Major brands including Godiva, ABC Studios, InterContinental Hotels, and Kodak, are conducting both qualitative and quantitative research digitally in private online communities. Sometimes, these initiatives extend offline as well, but the web is the core of the initiative.

We caught up with Joe Stauble who runs corporate strategy and market research for Mercedes-Benz USA to learn more about how the company is leveraging two online communities: Generation Benz, launched in 2008 and comprised of Gen Y consumers; and Mercedes Benz Advisors, a community of 1,795 baby boomers. Both community platforms were built by Passenger.

“Asking builds advocacy,” says Stauble, “it’s been a two year partnership with our consumers.” In the two years Mercedes has been running the invitation-only program, they’ve rolled out 156 polls, 179 surveys, 262 discussions, live chats with company executives, have invited participants to 32 live events, recruited some 25 members as mystery shoppers, and more. One member was offered the opportunity to test drive a GLK. He posted a glowingly positive video review to YouTube.

Recently Steve Cannon, who heads marketing for Mercedes, tested a TV spot for the gull-wing SLS in the community. He’d been “on the fence” about running a spot for a super-luxury vehicle in the depths of the recession. The community told him otherwise with a resounding thumbs-up vote. The spot is slated to debut on-air this month. “Online communities are a remarkable platform for maintaining relevant marketing strategies, and getting to know our customers in a deeper and richer way,” he says.

Generation Benz, the original community, was launched because as Stauble puts it, “Generation Y is the next big wave.”The 580 members age 16 to 33 were qualified by age and “propensity to luxury” via a questionnaire. Only 64 percent of them are Mercedes drivers. The older boomer community are all Mercedes drivers. An astonishing 70 percent of them regularly log on to MercedesBenzAdvisors.com.

Community members are excited about the opportunity to provide feedback directly to Mercedes decision makers. It’s a win-win for both sides. Mercedes is able to regularly conduct consumer research at a much lower cost, not to mention infrastructure and organizational requirements of the classic focus group while building advocacy through that research.

“You need to keep your customers close,” says Stauble. By creating private online communities to do just that, Mercedes is fostering relationships that benefit consumers — not just their brand and products.