Thursday, 24 December 2015

Rumour Has It...

It has been noted on fan sites that the TransFormers Collectors' Club has changed the wording on their membership purchase option to state that "All memberships will terminate with the December 2016 issue", causing much debate as to the meaning of that phrase.

To me, that (coupled with the almost vague comments offered by a certain Fun Publications staffer on his Facebook page) suggests that the Club - at least, as operated by Fun Publications - will no longer exist in 2017, despite the news that details of TFSS5 will be coming soon. One thing I've just noticed which may be considered 'further evidence' is that a certain large-size reissue I bought recently features none of the TFCC advertising that Hasbro have been including on their packaging for years. It's not just that it's covered over by stickers on the box - I've looked at photos and video reviews online, and can't see any mention of the Club on the packaging.

So... The end of an era..?

I can't be bothered to offer any conjecture on what will happen next - whether Hasbro will license another third party to operate a fan club, whether they'll do it in-house, or whether they've decided there's no place for a fan club of this kind in the internet age - but I will spend a bit of time describing my experience of the Club, for better or worse.

My first year's membership was bought for me as a Christmas present, back in 2006, by a friend, because I'd been banging on about TransFormers generally (and particularly one of the Club's upcoming exclusives) all the while lamenting that it seemed like too much hassle to buy an international membership. My first year (or so) changed all that, though, as I picked up my first Club exclusives, Astrotrain and Airazor. The latter remains the high point of my eight years of membership and, while I have bought several other exclusives, their hit/miss ratio hasn't been ideal. The introduction of the Subscription Service in 2013 seemed to have awesome potential. Year 1 was better than I'd expected, considering I only really wanted two out of the six figures when it was first announced, but subsequent years got less inspiring (I bought three from TFSS2 on the secondary market, but have zero interest in anything offered by TFSS3) until the 2016 set was revealed to be a truly wacky combiner based around the Mayhem Attack Squad, from the old Marvel comics. I ordered that in a heartbeat, despite very limited remolding (new head for the torso and for the gestalt, the limbs are just repaints) and have only really started to regret that since the announcement of Takara Tomy's Unite Warriors Grand Galvatron. I had been considering selling the completed set of TFSS4, but if this truly is the end of the Club, perhaps I won't after all...

All the dealings I had with the Club staff were always extremely positive - once or twice, a newsletter went astray in the post (generally around December/January, which is completely understandable due to the inopportune combination of membership renewal and Christmas/New Year post in the UK), and they were kind enough to resend that issue at no extra cost (and on one such occasion they were under no obligation to do so as I'd left it about a month past their deadline for replacing missing issues). On the one and only occasion I had to contact them due to a defect with one of their exclusives (specifically, the misassembly of one of my Cobra B.A.T.s - certain other assembly/QC issues were so prevalent it wasn't worth trying to get replacements) they sent a replacement without even wanting the faulty one returned (though only because I'm an international member, and returning it would have been expensive).

The experience of being a member, on the other hand, was often quite disappointing, even ignoring their strange choices of premium exclusives and how awkward their ordering procedure could be. While the Club initially had a members forum, it was distinctly low-tech, little better than a bulletin board. In the grand tradition of such enterprises, it was just as fractious as any other fan forum and rarely, if ever, featured any input from the Club themselves. It ended up getting closed down (late 2009/early 2010?) when they went through one of their infamous 'system upgrades', and never got replaced. The free club fiction - short, illustrated stories downloadable as PDFs in the Members' section - disappeared around the same time, and has only resurfaced recently (Dec 2015). The stories were never great, but the art was usually cool, and they were another benefit of membership (to those with an interest in fan-fiction, at least). The website and Club store were - and remain - equally low-tech, and their social media footprint has never been impressive. They have a Facebook page, for example, but it's used only for announcements. Any enquiries are simply directed to the Club's admin email address or the office phone number, surely missing the point of having a Facebook page. The same is true of their Twitter account - loads of announcements, no real interaction. The bi-monthly printed magazine is full colour, but very small (16 pages!) and rarely carries any truly exclusive information - by the time it arrives, any newly-revealed toys have been pictured online for several weeks, so only things like the history articles, the interviews and the comic make it a worthwhile benefit... but any and all of that could be posted online to cut the cost of printing a 16-page bi-monthly magazine and mailing it out to members all over the US and the rest of the world. I think that's where Fun Publications has consistently fallen down: they're basically stuck in the 1990s as far as using the Internet is concerned. Their web presence could be so much bigger, better, far-reaching... but they seem to be OK with the idea of carrying on with an incredibly basic website and no real interaction with members, either via their own forums or via established social media.

While lots of members - particularly the international ones - complained about the cost, I have been lucky enough that the exchange rates between dollars and pounds has always been in my favour and international membership has never been a truly uncomfortable expense for me. There have been years when it didn't feel 'worthwhile' - when neither the Club exclusives, BotCon set nor the Subscription Service figures were of interest - but the free membership figure was always a welcome bonus, and went some way to make up for the loss of the forum and the Club fiction.

By far their biggest blunder was when it transpired their e-commerce provider had been hacked (Feb 2012), resulting in a high likelihood that Club members' card details were suddenly in the wild, but that seems to have affected only a very few, based on the reports I've seen. This led to the first of their more recent 'upgrades', which took far longer than it should have done for any commercial website, let alone one associated with a high profile toy brand, and didn't improve the look of the front end at all.

I've heard a lot of complaints about the way BotCon was organised, the locations, the registration procedure... but it honestly couldn't have been worse than the couple of AutoAssemblies I attended, or even the vast majority of the MCM shows I've visited at the ExCeL Centre, where the way you get into the show changes every single time, yet they still haven't found an efficient system.

For me, personally, if this is the end of Fun Publications' tenure as the official TransFormers Collectors' Club, I'll be sorry to see them go. Just because they never had me so hooked I'd buy anything they produced, just because they didn't consistently make the sort of premium exclusive that I wanted to buy, just because I've never made it to a BotCon because they've always been in the USA and at awkward times of the year... doesn't make them 'bad', as such. Opinions vary, but I never felt that TransFormers were playing second fiddle to their role as the Official GI Joe Collectors' Club.

I hope there will be some kind of Collectors' Club - the brand certainly deserves it - but a different model, and a heavier emphasis on online activities and communication, would be beneficial.

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