Facebook Funerals: When You Close a Brand, What About the Fans?

Four Examples of How Not to Talk to Your Fans When Killing a Product

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In a plot twist few soaps fans could have seen coming, ABC pulled the plug on two of its longest running daytime TV programs, "One Life to Live" and "All My Children," earlier this month. The shows were born in the era of boxy TVs and a good decade before cable. In a sign of the times, ABC posted the details promptly to its Facebook fan pages, home to nearly 700,000 die-hard fans combined, alerting them that the final episode for each show would run in the coming months. The message was clear: enjoy it while it lasts before the mourning period -- the entertainment business prefers the term "sunset" -- sets in.

Bernhard Warner
Bernhard Warner

Fans aren't happy, but the broadcaster went where few brands and organizations are willing to go these days: to their warm and fuzzy fan pages to announce the death of a loved one, be it a discontinued show, a terminated product or a suspended campaign.

Brands and organizations spend increasingly greater marketing funds and manpower to build a virtual community around new product launches and ad campaigns. They're very good at starting the party, but have failed to master the art of the poignant goodbye. In a few cases they've even abandoned the community altogether when a show's over.

To be sure, marketers aren't the best equipped in an organization to talk publicly about death and loss. (That's the job of the PR pros, apparently.) But surely death and loss are inevitable discussion topics that will arise in any community. Social media communities are no different.

How then have organizations chosen to communicate the end? Here are a few notable examples from the past few months:

1) A few months to live

ABC's "All My Children" and "One Life to Live"

Death notice: Citing "extensive research into what today's daytime viewers want," broadcaster ABC on April 14 announces that this will be the final season for daytime soaps "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." They will be replaced by new shows that glorify good cooking and, respectively, nutrition and weight loss. The 670,000 "AMC" and "OLL" fans on Facebook are informed the shows will "sunset" over the next few months; their final episodes will be in September and in January, 2012. The details are posted to the Facebook fan pages of both shows where many of the fans first hear of the news.

Remembered for: Heroically, the network continues with its dutiful Facebook postings, even if the travails of characters like "AMC's" Tad and Cara and Griffin seem somehow trivial in comparison to the faithful. Fans beseech the network to reconsider and even form an ABC protest group, vowing to, among other things, boycott the network's coverage of the royal wedding. But the inevitable is starting to sink in among soaps die-hards. One fan ominously predicts doom for the genre: "NBC is getting ready to cancel 'Days of our Lives.' They will not be picking up more soaps." These are not happy times for soaps fans. At least they have each other to commiserate, and a few more months of shows to savor the moment.

2) Our condolences: better late than never

Cisco's Flip Video

Death notice: On April 12, Cisco informs investors it's getting out of the consumer gadgets business, a move that means the end of the Flip cam. How sudden was the news? The day before the plug was pulled, the Flip social-media team tapped its 347,000 Facebook fans to brainstorm for new designs ... and then all went quiet. It took nearly two full weeks for Flip or Cisco to even acknowledge the demise of the Flip publicly on any of its social-media channels. Finally, late in the day on Good Friday (appropriate timing, must say) someone from Cisco posted a thanks-for-your-support "future of Flip" memo. Puzzlingly, the memo signs off with this line: "The teams have been reading your comments from emails and our social-media community pages and are touched by the overwhelming number of thoughts and messages." Why then did it take so long to say anything?

Remembered for: The tech press has had some fun writing the Flip obituary, provocatively wondering whether anybody will really miss it? In the long run the Flip will go the way of the Betamax and VHS, but it's hardly forgotten. Cisco's sudden decision made "RIP Flip" a trending discussion topic on Twitter in the days following the announcement. What confounds most tech watchers is that Cisco, a company that prides itself on its "transparent" social-media chops, pulled the plug so abruptly without so much as an explanation to its loyal followers. And those followers won't let Cisco forget it. As one Flip fan posted to the "future of Flip" announcement: "Dislike. Killing the Flip is doing a great disservice to the educator community among others. Cisco, your consumer telepresence line is doomed to failure as evidenced by this short term profit centric decision making. ...You deserve to have your lunch handed to you by your competition."

3) The not-dead-yet

Microsoft Zune

Death notice: In March, Bloomberg reports Microsoft will finally pull the plug on Zune, killing off its iPod-wannabe. Microsoft quickly responded with a firm denial of the report, even posting a reasoned explanation to the Zune Nation about why it's "absolutely committed" to the Zune. The message was prominently posted to the Zune Facebook fan community of close to 200,000 (a message it then Tweeted to its 50,000 followers).

Remembered for: The response to Microsoft's intervention? Nobody seemed to listen at the outset. Fans suspiciously assumed it was Bloomberg who had the story right, and the comment boards on Facebook filled up with doubts about its survival. But in time those doubts have faded. And today? We see one fan, looking beyond into an imperceptible future, peppering the Zune board with the question: when we'll see a Linux version of Zune?

4) Nothing but ghosts

Microsoft Kin

Death notice: Last July, Microsoft decided to kill off its Kin, a smartphone originally billed as the ultimate handset for the social-networking generation. It was only on the market for a matter of weeks, not quite long enough to set up a meaningful branded social-media presence to support the handset's launch.

Remembered for: In social media circles, all that remains of the Kin today is a fan-inspired Facebook group, though the comments come mainly from collectors of dinosaur gadgets. Word is Microsoft only sold 500 units so the company could be excused for pulling the plug and keeping mum. But as we see here, the public hasn't forgotten the Kin. I'd counted last summer that there were 175 fans of Kin on Facebook at the time of its demise. Today it's up to 242. Why another 67 people would want to join a group for a defunct product is a baffling, if not perverse, act. But it also serves as a metaphor for the new world we live in where dead products continue to live on in the virtual graveyards of Facebook.

Bernhard Warner is a director at the editorial consultancy Custom Communication and are co-founders of Social Media Influence. He tweets at @socialinfluence and at @bernhardwarner.
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