Why shouldn’t Toyota foster a Prius users community?

TechDirt has a snarky article about Toyota’s effort to create a web community with Prius owners, referring to previous flops: a failed Walmart customer community, and an “anti-social software” application that let people sms others based on license plate number.
Toyota’s implementation sounds flawed, but the idea has merit. Walmart shoppers have little in common other than they like cheap stuff and are willing to drive to get it. Prius owners, on the other hand, may have more in common, including maintaining a fairly new product, as well as interests in other green purchases and green policy.
The Toyota site, by news report, allows toyota owners to create profiles of themselves, and search profiles of other people. But what Toyota owners have in common isn’t the desire to date or hire other Toyota owners (the motivation in MySpace and Linked In sites with this format. It’s to share information about owning a Prius, and being generally interested in responsible household energy use.
The need would be better served by a traditional blog/wiki setup, where owners could tell stories about their Prius use, Prius products, and other experiences using and seeking green products. A profile might be a feature for the system — and individuals could choose how much to disclosed about their personal identity — but it wouldn’t be the first thing that a user would do. There are other features more important than profile detail and profile search — the ability to create local “prius club” events, for example. A built-in wiki would help Prius users build information about hybrid technology.
There are reason for Toyota not to host the site themselves, as TechDirect suggests, but to sponsor an independent site. Prius owners might be interested in third party modifications, such as plug-in conversions, that would void a Toyota warranty. Toyota might not be willing to foster plug-in mods under its own roof, although they would certainly benefit from learning from those early adopters. It would be useful to have a ratings service for mechanics and third-party products, and Toyota might not want to sponsor this directly, either. Prius owners might be interested in organizing to advocate green policy at a local or national level. Toyota might or might not be interested in being directly assocated with this.
So, the best solution might be for Toyota to be a sponsor in a third-party hosted community, rather than hosting itself. And, while profiles could be a useful part of the tool set, it wouldn’t be the place to start. Prius owners are probably more into their shared interests than personally interested in each other.

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