After my column on Toyota’s plan to launch a social network for owners of its upcoming electric and plug-in hybrid cars, I got a great email from a reader who had a run-in with his own automaker’s social network.

I’ll drop the automaker’s name, but this reader was invited to join a “private online community,” to offer feedback on ad campaigns and even some products. Here’s his reaction:

It turns out that these discussions are highly moderated and the input from [company] is very corporate. Being initially very positive to the opportunity to interact directly with [company], I now loathe the company. When we bought our last car about a year ago, we didn’t even consider [company]. Why? In my opinion, when you run a discussion forum, there has to be a sense of engagement and passion. When you are just served legalese and carefully crafted corporate answers to users that bring up valid concerns, you lose trust in the people running the site, and worse the company. The problem when a corporation is the editor and censor, you cannot really trust what’s being said.

This isn’t a universal reaction to this particular community. I searched some independent discussion forums and found threads about this network, and some car owners like it–mostly for the occasional swag that comes with participating, and for the satisfaction of feeling like they’re talking to top people. There was also much discussion about how you go about getting invited, since you have to be asked to join, and how you’ll be cut from the community if you don’t log in regularly.

Two thoughts on this.

One, if you create a social network, you play by Facebook’s rules, regardless of how you envision your forum. Facebook has set the standard for the engagement, freedom, and candor people will expect. It’s like in the early web days, when smart CIOs realized eBay and Amazon would be the standard their websites would be compared to. If your company wants a forum that’s safer and more controlled than Facebook, well, it will be seen for the lameness that it is.

Two, I think we’re also seeing here how social networking is changing the expectations generally for communicating with companies. It sounds from this reader’s description like what this carmaker really wanted was not so much an online community as a market research panel–a captive audience to which it could ask questions and get back data and reactions. But people don’t come to a forum and wait to be asked questions. They expect to be able to ask questions and get straight answers from human beings. And they expect to be able to talk with each other, and for people from the company to join but not control.

One last thought. This person (who’s a company president) didn’t even consider buying his next car from this company specifically because of his bad experience in this community. Just a warning, in case anyone is wondering how big the stakes are in getting social right.


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