As promised, my 2 cents on a discussion that emerged at Saabs United about whether NEVS should have an ‘Inside Saab’ type blogger and what effect that might have on external Saab websites.
I’m on the record stating that NEVS should have an Inside Saab type website. I think the initial concept for Inside Saab as devised by the marketing team before I joined Saab (it was their idea, not mine) was fantastic and I think we could have done some great things. I think that same concept would be beneficial to Saab as they re-start their operations under NEVS, whether the site be in English, Swedish or Mandarin.
The question, then, as per the discussion on SU, is whether or not an Inside Saab type site can co-exist with independent Saab websites.
My answer – it is perhaps inevitable than an Inside Saab website would have to co-exist with independents. The (perhaps unattainable) goal of anyone doing an Inside Saab website, however, should be to provide such a comprehensive, informative and primary service that no other news-based Saab website is necessary.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritties, then. I’ll raise some points of my own and respond to some points being made on SU as I go along.
NEVS needs to take complete ownership of its message
This is perhaps the most important reason for having an active PR department that may or may not include an Inside Saab type service. NEVS must own their own message. They need to communicate with customers as directly as possible, whether that be through their dealership structure or directly from the company to the customer.
A point from Tim on SU:
What I have suggested to NEVS is that they hire someone who can gather resources for the outside bloggers, thus saving the workload we have to do by calling different people, setting up appointments or just plain research. NEVS should have a person that can arrange press-passes for blogger, arrange interviews, put us in touch with the right people, arrange photos or media etc etc etc…
This amounts to outsourcing a proportion of your marketing, trusting people outside your organisation to correctly communicate whatever the story of the day is. You’re trusting that their reporting skills are up to scratch, that their photography skills are up to scratch, that they can show off your company in the best light possible (if you’re in marketing and you’re not trying to show off your company in the best light possible, get out of marketing).
What’s more, you’re actively directing people to go somewhere else to learn about your company. “These guys are the authority on our company”. Who does that? At some point, the tail could start wagging the dog, the consequences could be catastrophic and the people at NEVS would have no-one to blame but themselves.
Hiring someone to gather resources and then leaving it to the fans is all well and good if this is just a small sideline to an established marketing regime with clear lines of communication to the outside world. If you ‘own’ your own search terms, for example.
My suggestion, however, is that that liaison’s wage would be better spent hiring someone who would not only know their way around the organisation, they would also know their way around a keyboard and the construction of a good story. They would know how to engage and manage a community.
Telling the ‘Inside Saab’ story should only ever be a component part of Saab’s over-all marketing and PR effort. But that doesn’t mean that ‘near enough is good enough’. It has to be professionally executed or NEVS would be better off saving its money. That doesn’t mean professional studio photos or video with every story. It can be ‘human’. But it should be to a definite standard, it should wear ‘the corporate suit’.
Quoting Tim, again:
….better to hire a guy in Sweden that actually can talk to employees in swedish
Tim wrote this half in jest, but it’s also half serious. Unfortunately, it’s almost completely wrong.
The best hire that NEVS could make, should they choose to do something like this, is to hire someone who’s fluent in the primary language of the market they want to communicate to. If that’s Swedish, fantastic. If it’s English, then hire a native English speaker. If it’s Mandarin, then hire a native Chinese.
The interests of the reader are the #1 priority. The ability to gather information is not a problem. There are translators available to fill the language gap if such a gap exists – and that gap that would only come into play, IMHO, when writing for a Chinese audience is concerned. Gathering information for a story in English is not a problem at the Saab plant, believe me. The ability to share a story with all the nuance of truth, intention and good humour is more important. That task should be done by someone who natively speaks the language of the people with whom you want to engage.
The core SU team have super-impressive English fluency. That is not in question. But it’s one thing to be able to speak, hear or read a second language and another thing completely to write in that second language with the competence needed to effectively engage an audience. That might sound a little cruel, but I’ve only met one person in 43 years for whom English was a second language, who I consider could write English with all the nuance of a native English speaker (greetings, Jeroen).
NEVS has to own this medium 100% and control its message – both its content and its quality. Anything less would be unprofessional.
The Inside Saab dilemma
We never got to see the full potential of the Inside Saab concept. Saab stopped manufacturing just as I started my employment with the company and never really re-started again. What we had, instead, was a company in crisis mode for nearly six months and a very frustrated blogger who wasn’t privy to as much information as he’d like, nor permitted either legally or by convention to write about everything that happened.
That is the Inside Saab dilemma.
Once you take a job doing something like Inside Saab, you’re on the team. You can push and push and push to get a more exciting, more informative message out there but in the end, you are an employee and you’ve got to stick to the team plan. If that plan involves holding your horses, so be it.
For someone with an independent background, that can be difficult. I wouldn’t have had too big a problem pointing out where the company could do better at Inside Saab. I’d be sensitive about it, but I could do it and I could deal with that sort of flak. But I would have had a real problem going against the team’s schedule where there was a controlled news release plan in place.
You have to be honest and you have to maintain a sense of integrity, but you also have to build trust, especially if you’re on the team.
The dilemma is when you’re faced with a situation where you’re either defending the indefensible or you’re withholding what you know is information that would be of significant interest. In my time as an independent, such stories were absolute brand-builders. They were the protein that caused the website to grow and it’s that growth that made the website interesting to Saab in the first place.
As an inside blogger, however, you have to be professional and accept that the ground-breaking exclusive that the company doesn’t want released (like spyshots of a new car) is no longer your domain. As an inside blogger, your job is to control the message and make your content interesting, regular and engaging enough that the audience’s appetite for ‘big’ news is satisfied by the content you deliver.
In a nutshell, your job as an insider is to take away the market for scandalous news by providing a steady, meaty course of interesting and authorised news. By doing this, you meet all your goals – you remain a team player, you promote the interests of the company and the interests of the reader.
Tim, on SU:
Both Victor (Muller) and I agreed that had Spyker been a private company, which it is now, it would have had a much better chance of success! SU managed to help Saab a lot in the explaining part and by killing off a lot of rumors but it was hard work! Inside Saab could never do that since whatever was written there was official news, the independent SU had a great advantage there.
On the fundamentals of this, I absolutely agree.
Inside Saab, as it ran during 2011, was part of the Marketing department at Saab. That’s how it was set up before I arrived and it’s how things stayed (even though I had to pass most things – not all – by the PR department before publishing them).
Had things turned out different for Saab, I would have lobbied very hard to move my physical location and most of my reporting to the PR department. I’d started talks with people about this while I was there. Inside Saab was conceived by the Marketing department – before they even hired me – as a marketing tool that would include some liaison with the PR department. It should have been the other way around.
Inside Saab was always hampered and relatively ineffective as a result. It didn’t have to be that way, however. It wouldn’t have been that way had things turned out different for Saab. The positioning of Inside Saab would have been realigned and I think the site would have been a much more timely and effective means of communication for all facets of the company.
The Independent’s Obligation
Permit me this indulgence, but a little bit of backstory is necessary here.
When I started Trollhattan Saab, I was just a Saab enthusiast who wanted to share his love for this car company with other enthusiasts. In fact, it was even less than that. I was just a guy who wanted to write about something. The blogging medium had just taken off and Saabs were the single subject I knew something about, so off I went.
Things started getting serious when I received my first spyshots via an anonymous email, showing what was planned to be the Saab 9-6x. Shots of the face-lifted Saab 9-5 came later and then the face-lifted Saab 9-3, along with news of a mysterious sounding ‘Black Turbo’. All of a sudden, Trollhattan Saab was a news source as well as an enthusiast hub.
My first serious trip overseas to cover a Saab-related event was in 2007 – the Saab Festival in Sweden. My airfare to the festival was 75% funded by readers of the website, via donations.
That trip did two things that were crucial to the future success of TS and SU:
- It solidified for me that everything I did on SU had to be for the benefit of the readers/supporters of the site. Their patronage meant I had an audience to write for and their financial support made the trip possible.
- While readers supplied most of the airfare, Saab themselves offered me accommodation in Trollhattan, but only after it was confirmed that I was coming. In other words, the support from readers at TS showed Saab that this was a legitimate effort going on at TS. The support shown by various Djup Strupes showed that I had exhibited enough of the Saab Spirit to be worthy of the information they provided. The respect I showed those sources by protecting them showed that I could be trusted. Saab had to take notice and they had to build a constructive relationship with me because I had demonstrated that I had a significant audience that was very engaged with what they were doing.
What you should take out of this, and where I think SU has fallen down in the last however-long, is this: For an independent website, the readers and their interests must always be the #1 priority.
By making readers your #1 priority, you build your readership. By handling information the right way and showing the right spirit (i.e. the core beliefs that have driven the company and drawn people to it are sometimes more important than management’s beliefs), you build relationship with the ‘true believers’ at the company. When you combine that relationship with a solid readership, you make yourself important to the company.
It’s just my opinion, but I believe that Saabs United has been far too focused on promoting the company’s interests. The site’s commitment to the interests of readers has suffered as a result.
If Saab, under NEVS’s ownership, is not going to place much importance on what were Saab’s traditional markets, then Saabs United’s future is bleak and they may as well come out and say so.
If Saab, under NEVS’s ownership, are going to place a high degree of importance on Saab’s traditional markets, then Saabs United should be doing all it can to examine and report on that scenario with an independent eye. That, in my opinion, is promoting the interests of readers.
If Saab United wants to recommend that customers (i.e. readers) support the company by purchasing a vehicle from them, then they better be damn sure that company’s business model is sustainable, that the company will not only have a truly competitive product (as opposed to one that can get a sympathy purchase), but that the company will actually be around to support that product. Giving unqualified support to both a 12 year-old product and a company with a business plan that isn’t quite logical is not acting in the best interests of readers.
If SU is going to be independent, then it has to act independent. The current model of being a quasi-controlled mouthpiece looks second-rate for NEVS and short-changes SU’s readers.
Saab Owes The Independents Nothing
Quoting Tim, again:
….if NEVS were to hire someone to become an inside NEVS blogger, I’m leaving the blogging world instantly and completely because that would basically be like put a big knife in the back of what we’re spending a huge amount of our spare time and money to do… and for NEVS, our work is completely free of charge!
I’ll get to the free of charge bit in a moment because there are some issues there.
First, though, let me dispel this notion of a decision by NEVS to start their own informative presence as being a knife in the back for SU or anyone involved in it.
Yes, I agree 100% that such a decision would hurt people at SU if that decision was to go SU-free. I understand the personal pain that would cause.
But consistent with my belief that NEVS must control their own message is a belief that they HAVE to recruit who they think is the right person to run that message. They don’t owe that choice to anyone. If the right person is someone at SU, then all well and good. If it’s someone sitting in a rice field reading a Chinese translation of Top Gear, all well and good. The decision is NEVS’s to make and it should be based, wholly and completely, on the type of service they want to deliver and the market they want to deliver it to.
When I was writing TS and SU, I used to have all sorts of discussions/arguments with another Saab blogger about the treatment he thought Saab bloggers were ‘entitled’ to.
My argument – we do this out of our interest in the company. Any help we get from the company along the way is welcome, but it’s not owed to us. They would have every right to cut communications completely and do their own thing. It wouldn’t have looked great to treat passionate and competent enthusiasts that way, but it would have been their right. Saab/GM owed us nothing.
If you have that frame of mind, you can better maintain your independence. If you start to feel entitled and hint at demands of favor deserved for services rendered, you allow them room to make demands of you.
That’s not to say you should give yourself away, however. Here’s where we get to the “free of charge” bit.
Independence and Self-Respect
There’s a subtle difference between feeling entitled and being OK with asking for payment for reasonable services. I don’t have either the time or the inclination to explain that difference, but I hope the following example from the past tells the story adequately.
When I started travelling to major events at Saab’s invitation, I would use up vacation time from my employer to do this. Eventually I ran out of vacation time. The choice became whether to keep doing Saab stories or have some time off with my family, which by natural extension became a choice as to whether I tell my family ‘Saab stories are more important than you’. Not acceptable.
My solution was to take leave-without-pay from my job and ask Saab to cover the week’s wages that I lost by taking time off to cover an event for the website. They had an interest in making sure readers got the best coverage and they were confident that I could and would provide that. They had no issues and happily fulfilled my request on several occasions. I never asked for more than the wages I had forgone (i.e. never took advantage of the situation) and I always worked my butt off at any events I attended. They got their money’s worth, I can assure you.
It’s not always easy to ask for payment. I sure felt awkward the first time I did it. But if you’re providing a service that’s of value and it’s costing you something important (either significant money or family time), then asking for reasonable compensation becomes not only a matter of necessity, it becomes a matter of self-respect.
If NEVS consider the services of SU to be of value, NEVS should be willing to cover some of the costs incurred by the crew in covering stories of importance. I’d highly recommend that Till, Tim and co discuss this with them if the NEVS/SU relationship is to continue. At the very least, they’ll get an idea of their perceived value to the company.
Should NEVS consider doing something along the lines of what Inside Saab was intended to be?
I continue to believe that they should. Absolutely. I think it was a great concept dreamed up by the marketing team at Saab and it would have had great benefits for the company in terms of building up relationship with customers. Saab is small enough to be able to do that effectively and I sincerely think it would be good for them. NEVS must take ownership of their message and resist contracting it out to others. NEVS has to hire agents who natively speak the language they want to communicate in. Anything less is unprofessional and this is a global business in sophisticated industry. Time to put your big-boy pants on.
What about independent Saab bloggers?
I think independent Saab bloggers should be independent and should not be afraid of asking the hard questions. I think NEVS should weigh them and judge their level of co-operation with them accordingly. I think if NEVS chooses to pursue their own efforts at communicating with owners directly (e.g. an Inside Saab type effort) then I think they should make every effort to make that site the absolute best it can be, even if it takes some market away from independents. There should not be a conscious goal of taking market share away from independents, but that should be a natural result of doing the job well.
Some of you are thinking “Swade’s only writing this because he wants a job at NEVS if they’re thinking of doing this”.
Would I talk to NEVS if they were thinking of doing this and they asked me about it? Absolutely. Of course I would. But that’s not the reason for this post (and talking to them would include wanting to hear answers to ALL of the questions to make a judgement for myself as to what they’re doing – if I don’t believe in the company’s product there’s no way I could promote it).
The reason for this post – regardless of what NEVS ends up doing and who ends up doing it for them – is that I care about the position. I care about the way it’s seen historically and I’m interested in observing the way it’s done in the future.
That sounds corny, so let me explain….
I’m not sure how closely this Saab we’re seeing is going to resemble the Saab that I came to admire and love all those years ago. We’re seeing that unfold right now. As of this moment, the enthusiast community cares about Saab but it remains to be seen whether Saab still cares about the enthusiast community.
That relationship is what this role, independent or official, is all about. That relationship used to be at the core of what I did. That’s why I care about it.
I think the way NEVS is using SU at the moment is wrong. I think the way SU is allowing itself to be used by NEVS fails the site’s readers. I hope both parties can examine their roles and figure out what to do next because both parties – and most importantly, their shared ‘customers’ – deserve better.
Note: I have no idea if NEVS are interested in this area and I haven’t had any direct communication with NEVS since my interview with Mikael Östlund back in November last year. I obviously pissed him off because he hasn’t spoken or written to me since 🙂
In other words, this whole post is talking about a function that doesn’t even exist and is, in all likelihood, is never going to exist in a way that matters to any of the parties involved.
Note 2: By talking about the things that I believe we did right with Inside Saab (or that I did right with TS and SU), does not mean that I didn’t do anything wrong over the years. I’m proud of the relationship I had with readers and I’m proud of TS and SU’s achievements under my watch, but nobody’s perfect. I’m not pretending to be here, but I’ve already written over 3600 words in this piece and covering my shortcomings would not only be irrelevant for this article, it would also take until Christmas 2014.