Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Saturn and the perils of Social Media.

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, as 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.

This blog entry was previously published April 28, 2009 on Loyalty Truth.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Building loyalty without points.

I’m a member of several hotel rewards programs but an e-mail promotion I recently received from one of them really caught my eye. It was from a boutique chain called Kimpton Hotels, with about 40 locations spread across the US.

The deal was fantastic, an $81 a night weekend rate to commemorate the company’s 1981 start date, redeemable at any of the chain’s hotels. It’s a far cry from the normal Kimpton rate, about $300 a night for big city locations.

What really surprised me though was that I received the offer at all. You see, far from being a “best customer” of the hotel, I’ve stayed at Kimpton hotels a grand total of one night at The Muse, a chic but friendly small hotel in New York City’s Times Square district.

Even if I had been identified as a potential high value customer, I wasn’t offered the ubiquitous double and triple point offer, but something of much greater value: a premium hotel room at about a 70% discount. Thanks, Kimpton Hotels!

It raises the question of how to best build loyalty and strengthen the customer-brand relationship in today’s feeble economy. Are there more/better ways to build loyalty than a traditional points offering?

While a lot of companies have traditionally relied on points to lure customers into a relationship, it strikes me that the Kimpton chain—by making a generous price-focused offer to even new loyalty program members like me—is taking a much more aggressive approach.

Rather than waiting for me to show loyalty to the hotel chain through repeated stays before rewarding me, they’ve turned things upside down—they’ve shown me some love early in our relationship, and in turn, I’ve immediately put them into my consideration set, even though I can name three or four hotel chains where I have more points.

An article in a recent issue of Advertising Age titled “Redesigning Loyalty Programs to Last Beyond the Next Purchase” touches on this subject. Readers are advised to look for new methods to build customer relationships, including:

“…add(ing) customer benefits that are not explicitly mentioned. Unexpected rewards can have significant value as customers view them as gestures on the part of the brand rather than payments they are owed.”

The point is sometimes it makes sense to break out of the it’s-all-about the-points mentality and reward those who simply raise their hands and identify themselves as your customers. By boldly taking the first step in a relationship, Kimpton Hotels has made it more likely that I’ll take the next step—and consider a long-term relationship with their brand.