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Saturn and the Perils of Social Media

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For most companies, starting a social Web site is a great idea. There’s no better way to strengthen a customer relationship than with an open and honest dialogue. But there’s a flip side to the coin. Once the lines of communication are open, it also means engaging when times are tough and the news is bad.

Which brings us to the Saturn division of General Motors.

Just over a year ago, Saturn launched ImSaturn, a social network site for Saturn “drivers, employees, fans and enthusiasts.” Early posts talked of snazzy new models and featured entries from happy Saturn customers. It was a feel good place.

But everything changed on February 17, 2009—when, if you’re at the controls of the ImSaturn site, a crisis kicks in. That’s the day parent company GM announces publicly that the Saturn brand is being discontinued after the 2010 model year.

Now if you’re a true blue ImSaturn follower, this raises some serious issues. Like: Is Saturn really going out of business forever? And: Why should I ever buy a Saturn again?

Cut to the ImSaturn Web site. Where it gradually becomes apparent that the Saturn company bloggers—who have been put in a difficult if not impossible spot—just don’t have the answers to the pertinent questions they need to address.

A February 18 post announces GM will investigate the “spin off of an independent Saturn”. A March 2 post says the same thing.  On March 31, they continue to look at “the spin off of Saturn as an independent company.” Then, from April 1 to April 15, except for a blurb on a new TV commercial, the ImSaturn site has no posts at all.

What makes this is odd is that during the same April 1-15 period, on a brand fan site appropriately named SaturnFans, 20 posts appear. Twenty. Including several stories on potential Saturn buyout partners and an entry on a public rally to save the company. There’s even an online petition to “SAVE SATURN”.

It’s enough to give you a disconcerting impression: the brand fans are more passionate about saving the company than the brand employees.

Meanwhile, if Saturn wants to monitor negative chatter on the Web, it need not go far. It’s happening in a public posting area right on the ImSaturn site, where positive feedback is offset by entries like “I will never buy another Saturn!!!!” and “You built crap and America never forgives!” Posts that have so far gone unchallenged.

The takeaway is that while there’s a vast upside to social Web sites, the Saturn experience shows there is also a small but real potential downside. Bad things can happen. They can begin to spiral faster than you can react to them. And even your best intentions can come up as empty as a gas tank on E.

Tom Rapsas is an independent Creative Director, Writer and Creative Strategist. He can be reached at tomrapsas@gmail.com

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