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GM's Blogging Experiment -- A First Year Report Card

A little over one year ago, Michael Wiley, the director of new media at General Motors, decided he had to do something to change the company's sclerotic image as a tired relic of the industrial age that had lost touch with American car buyers.

"We had to do something to humanize the company and create a fresh image for GM," he told me. "I knew that a few quick PR hits wouldn't do the job -- that it would take something like a blog to really shake things up. But I could see the carcasses all over the place of companies that had tried to do gimmick blogs. So I was insistent that our blog had to develop a real conversation with our customers. That was the only way it would do any good."

So Wiley brought his proposal for a blog to GM management, and got the go-ahead -- initially for a small-block engine blog for enthusiasts of the company's 1960s muscle cars (which was eventually discontinued in October of 2005), and then for the launch on January 5, 2005 of a GM Fastlane blog -- one of corporate America's first executive blogs -- to be written by company vice chairman and product guru Bob Lutz.

Almost immediately, Lutz's blog turned into a free-for-all between the company and its customers. Typical was a February 2 posting by Lutz in which he addressed this reader complaint about the quality of GM vehicles:

"I'm still looking for an excuse to ‘buy American,’ after switching to Japanese vehicles 15 years ago. With all the talent and resources that GM has, why can't every GM division have at least one vehicle that is best in class for design, quality and performance? AND outsells the Japanese competition?"

In response, Lutz insisted that GM is "trying to live down a reputation that was probably at one time deserved, but is no longer justified." He went on to cite favorable J.D. Power and Consumer Reports quality surveys for several GM brands, and then offered this challenge to his readers: "Don't take my word on any of this. Check the data, and go make comparison drives."

Lutz's post that day generated a phenomenal 122 comments, roughly 40 percent of them negative. Typical was this response from Nicholas Weaver: "If GM wants to dispel [its] bad reliability reputation, then it's going to have to beat the Japanese brand and do it for several years." Noted another critic named Susan: "GM needs to work on interior quality and refinement. The panel gaps on the hugely expensive Cadillac Escalade [are] just unacceptable."

But there were also many positive comments, including this one from Diego Rodriguez, a product design and marketing expert who operates the popular MetaCool blog:

"Quality is an international language, and no one firm can claim a lock on it just because they're Japanese or German or whatever. The proof is in the pudding, and I just might have to go out and test drive a Buick. There, I said it."

Interestingly, a number of readers were grateful simply to have someone -- anyone! -- in authority at GM listening to customer complaints and suggestions:

"Bob, thanks for putting up this weblog. It's [great] to be able to give you feedback." Added reader Jeff Crew: "As a car enthusiast, do you know how exciting it is to have a peak 'behind the curtain'? This is absolutely outstanding!"

Now, after a year into GM's blogging experiment, Wiley told me he believes it's been a resounding success. To be sure, the company remains in a deep financial crisis, as its latest earnings reports and layoff announcements demonstrate. But to Wiley, who never expected blogging -- or, indeed, any experiment in new communications strategy -- to solve the company's sales and earnings challenges, the results of the first year of blogging are clear.

"For one thing, some of the suggestions from readers have made it onto the desks of GM designers, which I think in the long run will improve the quality and appeal of our vehicles," Wiley explains. "But beyond that, I do think that there is less of a tendency to call GM a dinosaur relic lately try. In fact, the Business Week cover story on blogging [last May] even referred to us as 'surprisingly nimble.'"

Bottom line? "While it is difficult to pin down a quantum shift," says Wiley, "I feel confident that we have challenged the tired old stereotypes about GM."

I'd have to agree. And I might add that GM seems to have done everything right. GM's chief blogger (company vice-chairman Lutz) spoke in an honest and personal voice. He kept the PR department away from the blog's content. And the blog was equally open to both praise and criticism -- in other words, it was an authentic exchange between the company and its customers.

I'll wager that GM's more honest and intimate relationship with key customers will prove to be a formidable advantage in the company's efforts to surmount its current market challenges.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference GM's Blogging Experiment -- A First Year Report Card:

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Comments

Consider also John Cass's analysis. Cass salutes them for their efforts, but notes the sheer scaleability problem of responding to all comments (and thus sealing effective conversations). Blogs by themselves can invite conversations but they don't make it any easier to connect them to people who can answer (newsgroups still do a better job of that).

Though note that Cass does offer some pointers: in his words, blog better. Use the blog as a front-end to customer-relations/marketing.

In my words, go beyond blogging.

Good points, Jon.

Hell, I look at this way: increasingly, the company's brand future is in the hands of customers (who oftentimes have a backlog of justifiable anger they want to vent). The conversation about the company and its future is happening anyway out there, whether or not the company chooses to participate.

Better to participate, in my view, than sit on the sidelines and have your future decided without your input.

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