The State of Things

Sorry about the lack of weekend posting on this site, but I’ve had a lot on my mind and even more to do. With that said, it’s time to get a few things off my chest.

I’m not normally one given to blogging about the act of blogging, but here goes….

General Motors, and Saab in particular, owe me absolutely nothing. Which is a good thing as it appears that that’s what I’ll be getting from them from now on.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that it’d be a dream come true for me to be able to work for Saab in some capacity. The opportunity to work for an entity that I really believe in and whose products I truly enjoy would be welcome.

Several weeks ago I noted here that Saab USA were contemplating the creation of an enthusiast’s site that appeared to be quite similar to Trollhattan in it’s proposed content. Shortly after that posting I got in touch with my contact at Saab USA and expressed an interest in opening a dialogue about the proposed site and any way that I might be able to contribute to it. I thought it was a fairly natural fit given that I’ve been doing this for around 18 months now and have a feel for the practice.

At this point, I need to shed some light on my relationship with Saab USA.

When I first started this site all I had was the software to do so. The content came from hours of scouring the internet looking for things to write about. The background knowledge came from several years of Saab ownership, enthusiasm and research. I managed to wring out enough knowledge and create some content for the site that people saw as being honest and passionate. I survived my own mistakes and thanks in part to the grace shown by the regulars that visit this site, it grew to a point where it got noticed.

I can’t remember who contacted who first, but some time into the blog’s life I got in touch with Saab USA’s public relations department. I’ve enjoyed a very cordial relationship with them ever since. I tended to receive press releases a little earlier and straight to my inbox. I was always OK with the idea of presenting Saab USA’s view on things in concert with my own as I beleived it to be important in the interests of providing some balance. It also gave visitors here an insight into what the company was thinking and why it was acting the way it was.

One of the great things about this site, in my mind, is that I can say what I think. Readers can likewise respond with what they think. My interests are aligned with Saabs as I love to drive them and want to do so long into the future – therefore I want them to be successful. But my view isn’t written through the corporate filter and I’m happy to reminisce about old times and value the ‘purity’ of earlier Saab design. I’m also quite happy to call a spade a spade (for example – the 9-2x is a spade). I write from the enthusiast’s point of view and I make no apologies if that means I wind up rattling a few GM cages in the process.

So, back to the GM website issue. As mentioned above I have enjoyed a cordial relationship with Saab USA and emails would go back and forth between us probably around once or twice a week on average. When I expressed an interest in talking to them about this new enthusiast’s website they’re developing, my interest was met with a deafening silence.

And has been ever since.

So, what’s going to happen with this website they’re developing? That’s anybody’s guess really, but it seems quite obvious now that I’m not going to get a chance to be involved, which I think is a shame from several perspectives. First of all I really believe that I’ve got something useful to contribute. Secondly, I’m fiercely independant and I think that could only help a site like the one they’re planning in it’s quest for success.

Let me say this right here and now: I genuinely hope that Saab do put something like what’s been talked about together and I hope it’s an absolute killer of a site that works, and works well. My passion is for the Saab brand and its success and I have a rock-solid belief that embracing ‘web 2.0’ can be a big factor in the development of the brand amongst a very relevant section of their target market.

But sadly, I don’t think this is going to happen.

There’s a number of good Saab fan sites out there already and their success has proven to GM that this whole internet thing has some potential. Hopefully they’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of each and build a site that concentrates on the former and addresses the latter. My fear, however, is that they’re only going see the potential in building ‘a website’ and then go gung-ho into it without looking at what works and what doesn’t.

Take a look at a few of GM’s current websites as an indication of what I’m talking about.

GM’s Saab Owner Centre (US only and reg required) seems to be reliant on GM’s IT people for it’s existence. It’s only half developed and whilst the idea is good, it’s only going to damage the brand if it’s not properly and fully developed. Second, it’s only really useful to owners of Saabs from 2000 onwards. Many Saab owners that plan on staying with the brand may currently own older cars, but will find this site quite pointless. As it’s part of a customer service and retention strategy it’s cutting out a significant proportion of it’s own market.

GM’s Fastlane blog has been the forum for occasional posts by the executive higher-ups at GM, and whilst it’s won an award based purely on the pioneering decision to have an executive blog, it’s never lived up to its promise. Posting has been way too infrequent to build and maintain a readership and develop a truly meaningful dialogue.

GM’s FYI blog has been a sugar-coated piece of fluff since day 1 and another example of potential gone awry. It has little or no identity whatsoever.

Blogging is a new type of media and it’s got incredible potential for instituting and communicating change and building relationship and enthusiasm. It’s a prime opportunity for a small company like Saab to take the middle man out of the media debate and communicate directly with its customers. Get them to participate in the brand experience and actually make their own contribution to it. The doors that a modern interactive website can open are as effective as they are numerous – but it’s got to be done properly.

And that’s where I fear this GM site is going to fall over.

You’ve got be open. You’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to be totally transparent. You’ve got to demonstrate time and again that you’re doing what you’re doing for the brand and it’s adherants rather than for the shareholders. Do that effectively and you’ll be doing the shareholders a favour anyway.

A possible litmus test – You’ve got to be willing to hang shit on the Cadillac STS-V for having a totally tasteless interior. Can you see a Saab site from GM doing that? Take the fight up to the competition. Defence as a default stance is for teams that don’t have any offence. Do direct comparisons between Saabs and their equivalent Audis. Or Hondas, or even BMW’s (a friend of mine with a BMW 328 is now looking with some earnest for more torque after driving the Viggen and an Audi S4). Can you imagine a GM site doing that?

If Saab USA just turn to the GM corporate IT people and say “can you make one of those bloggy things for us” and don’t build honesty and integrity into the site – well – I’d give it year at most before traffic starts falling and more importantly, peers start mocking it. And that will do more harm than good, believe me. If they don’t give it an independant voice and put the corporate spin on hold then it’s effectiveness will be halved.

Is this sour grapes on my part? I’ll be honest. It hurts a little to have worked so hard on building something that you really believe in, only to have your idea taken and the door shut in your face. Owners of the bigger Saab forums should possibly feel the same way.

I’d love to run this site for GM. I’ve scoped it out and it’d be cost-effective and beneficial if done the right way.

I’ve got heaps of ideas as to the design, content and features such a site should have. And I think I have a much bigger idea of the market it should reach. I’ve probably executed about 40% of the ideas here at Trollhattan already, but I have a full time job outside of this website and hence, development is restricted by the time I can invest in doing things and more importantly, doing them right. In terms of the full potential for such a site I can honestly say I’ve thought of little else since GM’s plans became evident.

GM owes me nothing. They’ve helped me out over the last 18 months and I beleive I contributed to their cause during that time as well.

The only difference is that I’ve always been open and transparent with them and I think recent events prove they haven’t always been the same with me. They’re not obliged to in any way, just as members of a society aren’t obliged to display good manners – but it helps if they do.

This is a prime example of the damage that can be done if you’re not open, honest and transparent. If they carry the same approach through to a website where they’re hoping to build relationships with enthusiasts then I really hope they lift their game and do it properly.

The Saab brand and the many people that truly support it deserve no less.

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7 Comments

  1. Wow. Swade, you’ve been ruminating on this topic, haven’t you?

    I’m disappointed for you, primarily because I think that we as Saab owners will respond to great content and critique and you’ve provided pretty good fare here.

    However, who knows what they’re thinking? If they’re smart, they’ll syndicate content alongside any in-house stuff, and they’ll provide a forum, too. Plenty of opportunity there.

    What I’m saying is this: don’t give up yet! There are myriad ways to get this off the ground, and who else is at the ready with great content? Scott Patterson? Slobs like me? I doubt it!!

  2. You’re over-reacting a bit, I think.

    First — I have yet to see an example of corporate blogging that works. The essence of corporate communication is strict control of the message. Corporations are a lot like politicians – in order to get their message across, they have to repeat the same things over and over again. And one mis-step, one small move away from the official message, can ruin months if not years of effort to convey a particular point.

    In other words, the very things which make your blog so valuable — the spontaneity, the authenticity, the broad coverage of issues — cannot possibly be replicated in a corporate site. The very DNA of this site runs against everything corporate communications tries to do.

    Trying to do what you do under a corporate umbrella is akin to squaring the proverbial circle. It cannot be done.

    Second — there is an alternate and more plausible interpretation of Saab’s silence: they are afraid of getting sued. If Saab is doing this website, they’ve run it by the lawyers, and the lawyers have said — make sure you don’t steal or copy any ideas from anyone. Any e-mail exchanges they have with you amount to potential grounds for a copyright, theft of trade secret, or some such similar claim which you might make against Saab.

    Why not have you sign a release prior to discussions? Because if the discussions are not fruitful, Saab can never prove that it “reverse engineered” any ideas you advanced for the first time in an e-mail. Besides, we’re not talking about a serious technical innovation here, it’s a blog. It’s hardly worth a lawyer’s time to sort out which ideas Swade thought of, and which ones Saab originated.

    From the lawyer’s point of view, once Saab decides to put together an enthusiast website, it’s easier, cheaper, and cleaner just to shut down any and all communications with the only possible competitor out there. Were Saab to consult me in my legal capacity, I would give them that advice.

    So it’s not bad manners – it’s necessary corporate due diligence.

    Third – in my opinion you’re personalizing the situation too much.

    None of what you do is at all compromised by what Saab might do. The mission of Trollhatten.net is still the same — presumably your motives for doing the blog have not changed. In fact, the inherent corporate limitations on Saab’s (alleged) enthusiast website will only serve to highlight the strengths of your website.

    In fact there could well be some very good synergy between trollhatten.net and a Saab corporate blog. The corporate blog can host an enormous quantity of Saab history, photos, technical data on both current and past Saabs, etc. Think of all the things that you could link to and/or comment on.

    The perfect is the enemy of the good. The Platonic ideal of “super Saab blog” driving your frustration is something which can never exist. It is inherently impossible.

    So let Saab do what it (allegedly) wants to do, and continue to do what you do best.

  3. Greg, you are rooted far too solidly in the real world 😉

    I disagree about the “super Saab blog” being impossible, but I can see the point in your advice. I guess it’s one of those cultural things where you’d think ‘legal action’ when it would never have crossed my mind.

    My only motivation is to help in the most effective way possible, which I see as being a part of it, not just writing about it.

    Hadn’t thought about the syndication angle either, Eggs, which I guess is a possibility, though one with a small likelihood given the concerns Greg writes about relating to corporate messaging.

    Ahh, I guess I’ll just continue to tear my clothes and heap ashes on my own head. Then I’ll get over it and life will go on.

  4. Don’t give up and let all this put you down as the corporate giants don’t see and appreciate what we are all about. You’ve done and continue on doing a remarkable piece of work for the love and loyalty of the brand and to share this with all of us. That is the real value that most enthusiast in here appreciate day in and day out. I know personally how it feels when some times it is as though “big brother” doesn’t care and understand the real essence of our passion. GM or anyone outside of our own group has a real measure and clue of your true dedication. But the rest of us do. Thanks Mate for all these wonderful updates, stories and all the info you share with us. We appreciate your efforts and the time you devote from your own hart.

  5. I’m feeling empathy for you right now Swade. I think Eggs syndication may be the best/only hope.
    I hope this doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm too much. Seems that’s what big corporations don’t understand, that they literally quash enthusiasm for the brand by their silence and that invisible shield they try to erect around themselves. Even little things matter. I asked SaabUSA two simple questions in the past–no response. I ordered a brochure through their website once–no brochure (but now I get their junk mail). That’s not a way to foster enthusiasm and support for the brand.
    Just keep plugging and slugging away Swade. That’s why I keep coming back to trollhattansaab, to get an injection of enthusiasm.

  6. I’m going with Greg’s explanation (I too am American). SAABUSA cutting you off communications-wise has got to be for legal reasons.

    Remember when you spent all that money to send all our suggestions via snail mail to the head honchos of SAAB and never heard a peep back (not even an acknowledgement)? I’m guessing they didn’t want to be bound legally if they took any of the suggestions someone made.

    Say they decide to institute a suggestion that was in the mailing you sent them. Then all of a sudden a SAAB aficianado shows up at their doorstep with a lawyer claiming he came up with the idea and wants royalties. It sounds weird, but that’s how we think here in the States, unfortunately. You’ve got to make all your decisions with the possibility you’ll get sued in mind.

    As for competition from SAABUSA in the form of a blog… please. As you have stated already their prior forays onto the web have been less than impressive (like the useless SAAB Owners’ Center).

    Any company-sponsored site will be handcuffed by having to provide sugar-coated content geared toward selling current model-year cars. It’d be a sales/marketing tool.

    What you provide us here Swade, can never be replicated by SAAB. Stop worrying so much! You live in friggin’ paradise. Go out and get some fresh air (but not for too long. I need my TrollhattanSAAB fix)!

    Keep on truckin’, brotha! (whatever that means…) :-0

  7. That “sugar-coated” GM FYI is pushing the aeronautical roots today:-)
    http://fyi.gmblogs.com/2006/09/monday_sept_18.html

    I went to his Flickr album and found this shot of a Czechoslovakian Tatra 600 (1947-1952). Can’t help but think that this is what a Saab 92/93/96 would have looked like if they had chosen a rear-engined design.
    www-dot-flickr-dot-com/photos/samikki/140365793/
    (Hope this fooled the filter)

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