Comments fuel engaging conversations

The GM FastLane Blog is attracting quite a lot of commentary and opinion, with varying views being expressed on how effective it is as a means of engaging with GM’s customers.

I’ve posted commentary, too, most recently on the role of PR in its development and some insights on how it started and how commenting is managed.

My view is that, for its first executive step into the blogosphere, GM is doing a lot of right things with this blog. For starters, they now have a new channel through which they can stimulate two-way dialog with the outside world in a direct and informal way that’s entirely different to their other formal and traditional channels. It’s relatively clear from its positioning statement when the blog launched in early January what we can expect to see – commentary from GM leaders and an exchange of viewpoints. Just the type of thing you’d now expect from any business blog.

And as with any blog, when you post commentary, you might get comments from visitors who have an opinion to share related to what you’ve said. In the case of this GM blog, with commentary being posted by the Number 2 man in the company (Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, now joined by another senior executive), it’s no surprise that most posts attract plenty of comments.

Does this mean that GM should respond to every comment? No, of course not. The audience may well be in control of the message now (as I’ve argued before) but as a business blogger, you have control over the conversation. This isn’t a case of because someone, anyone, comments, you then comment back. That isn’t how a meaningful conversation develops (more on this in a minute).

Yet I’ve seen posts on some blogs that are highly critical of GM for not directly responding to comments, with some suggesting that leaving comments to the comments is what should be happening. Some (most) of those posts seem to follow some kind of anti-corporate agenda in their emotive rantings, which hardly makes for a desire to engage in any meaningful discussion with the bloggers concerned. In fact, that’s a prime reason not to engage.

One post I encountered this morning, though, made me stop and read it thoroughly. In his Intuitive Systems blog, Dave Taylor writes:

What most intrigues me about the GM business blog is that you can see them just starting to get the idea that the world has changed and that marketing communications (and public relations, for that matter) aren’t what they were when these execs went to school. The locus of control has shifted and like it or not, corporate America, it’s us consumers, us users, us writers, us, yes, bloggers, who are wresting back control over our daily consumption from the faceless Madison Avenue crowds.

That’s not a bad viewpoint which does reflect the view that the audience is in charge. It also illustrates a reality today – blogs have already made a dramatic impact on how we develop, distribute, receive, exchange and consume news and information, and have changed many of our expectations in this regard especially from a business perspective.

So with GM’s executive blog, Dave focuses on the first post by the new additional GM exec blogger (Tom Stephens, Group Vice President, GM Powertrain), and he says:

[…] I want to highlight how when you begin to communicate with your customers in a venue that offers some level of equality for corporate and customer, the discourse itself proves to be of the greatest value.

Go back to the GM article and start reading through the comments. In three days it’s already acquired over 85 comments, mostly from customers who are quite likely car fanatics and a key customer segment for General Motors. Impressive. Customers are listening, and, more importantly, talking. And now, using your blog, you can hear them, raw, unadulterated, unfiltered by your Marcom teams.

Well put. This gets to the heart of the point on developing meaningful conversations – what visitors say in their comments.

In my most recent post about the GM blog, I said that the tactics with this blog seem to be that when a post does generate substantial comments, as most of them do, no direct responses to any comment are posted by the blog author(s) as comments. Instead, a point made or raised by a visitor is used as a means to address a point of view with a separate post, which gives the blog author complete control over the topic and stating a specific point of view.

I believe that’s the most effective approach to take with a blog like this. You’re not ignoring the comments. Far from it – you’re picking a comment and using the commenter’s views and opinions as the vehicle to develop and extend a topic in a way that gives you, the blog owner, control over how a conversation may develop – if it fits with your objectives – and how you then develop greater engagement with your audience. Or not develop, depending on many factors including whether what you write is viewed by anyone as worth commenting on and further developing a conversation.

As Dave succinctly says:

You can see here that within three days GM has acquired a spot that allows them to have a digital brainstorming session with their customers, a focus group for the cost of hosting a Web page. Even the potential flash-point of this debate devolving into "tree hugger" "green side" versus "regular Americans" driving "big, powerful cars" is channeled into a venue that helps GM executives see the current state of discussion, with them in the center.

I said in my previous post that I like the way GM’s blog is developing as a channel to stimulate dialog and provide a dynamic means of engaging with customers and others who have an opinion.

It looks to be a good model for a leadership blog.

4 thoughts on “Comments fuel engaging conversations

  1. I agree. In my opinion, the GM *corporate* blog is developing pretty much as I would expect (and hoped) a c-level blog from a big company would. It’s just not possible for these execs, in their corporate roles, to interact in exactly the same way that we (or they) might as “private citizens.” Lots of reasons: Time. Expectations. Whether a back and forth in comments would be productive or even achieve the goal, ie of addressing the issue raised by the reader. Like it or not, these guys are balancing their corporate roles and responsibilities with a desire to increase transparency and build DIRECT connections with their customers. Their PR agency may be sifting through the comments and working with them to decide which ones should be commented on, but guess what, that’s their job too! At the end of the day, the GM execs are writing their own posts, thereby addressing their audience directly, and they should be applauded for the effort. I hope more corporate execs follow.

  2. What’s particularly fascinating is that it achieves this without having a ‘subscribe to comments through email’ function… thus very much pulling in the return viewer (which is a very different type of commentator).
    Frequently, in my experience, these types of comments turn into commentator conversations rather than between the author and while these are equally valuable in their own way.. I think you’re missing out on a lot of ‘constructive’ potential in the customer-brainstorming / relationship sense.
    I’m hardly a leadership blogger but have developed much stronger ties / had far more rewarding conversations since installing a ‘subscribe’ to comments feature (the RSS comments feed isn’t much whack either, it really needs to be email).
    Interesting post!
    Cheers, James Farmer

  3. Well said, Susan – apart from anything else, it does highlight what PR’s role can be in the planning and development of a public leadership blog. There is some talk out there that PR should not have any role in CEO/leadership blogging. That’s absurd, although I think such views are mostly based on the notion that if PR does get involved, it would mean PR writing content. Is that a bad thing? It depends. If it’s openly-disclosed, then I don’t see what the issue is in this regard. Indeed, with GM’s engine blog, it’s stated quite clearly that the communicators at GM (and the agency, I expect) are the ones doing the content.
    But that’s not the effective role PR should play with an executive blog. And unless someone has clear evidence to the contrary, that’s not what’s happening with the GM FastLane Blog, ie, the execs are the bloggers.

  4. Yes, I wonder what difference that might make, James, in developing those conversations. I notice many blogs offer an email subscription feature, but they tend to be for info on posts not comments, and most are third-party offerings. I have one on my blog, for instance, the Microsoft LiveMessage Alerts service that sends you an email every time something new is posted here.
    I can’t do that for comments, though, which I’d like to be able to offer. I’d like to be able to get that from other blogs, too, although I’d prefer getting comments and notifications via RSS rather than by email – they’d tend to get cluttered and lost among all the other email stuff, if not zapped by the anti-spam filters.
    I don’t know of any third-party offering that would enable a comment-notification service to run off a TypePad blog. Do you?

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