I've been witness to a remarkable mistake in public relations over the last couple of weeks: a web forum collapse.
South Africa's biggest-selling motoring magazine, Car Magazine, runs a motoring-related webforum, CarToday
. This forum was started up in the late 1990s, with crude software. I joined the forum in 1999 after stumbling over it when looking for technical tips for my Jag. In 2000, CarToday revamped the forum software, and I was the first registered member on the new forum. Over the years, I had many interactions with regular forum members, met many in real life (at braais, breakfast runs, and motoring events), and racked up over 15000 posts (some members had over 30000 posts). While the core of the forum was motoring, the non-motoring section was even busier, with people discussing everything under the sun. Members shared their experiences, their thoughts, and there were "real life" occasions many attended - weddings, birthdays, events, and sadly, even some funerals (including the one I attended on December 24 last year).
A few years ago, two of the regular members were elected as moderators, and they did a good job of moderating the forum. The forum software was getting a bit creaky, but upgrades were promised.
Things came to a head a couple of weeks ago during a discussion about cyclists on the roads. A member of a cycling forum (who was not a member of the CarToday forums) took affront to some posts made, and complained to CarToday. The webmaster duly deleted the entire thread. Words flew, and she made some unpleasant insinuations about the volunteer moderators.
So one member offered some web space and bandwidth he had, others volunteered expertise and time, and overnight, a new motoring forum, CarForums
, was born. All the regular members (almost 500) migrated across en masse
almost immediately, leaving CarToday a ghost town, with maybe 5 posts a day, and CarForums with hundred of posts. An article on the whole drama even appeared in a local newspaper. Subsequently, CarToday's editor posted an "explanation" which is pretty much a pack of lies, to be blunt.
CarToday, perhaps, didn't really want their forums; the data traffic costs must have been really high. But they managed to build up a great deal of ill-will. Typically, they underestimated their forum users, just as they'd always treated them like children. This may have backfired though; there may only be several hundred affected users, but many of these forum users were readers of the Car Magazine print edition (not any more!), and many were influential in many different industries.
The Internet can make it so easy to lose customers very quickly. This should be a case study.