Dear Robert
Scarlet Guy, my 7 year old, recently did a school project where she had to research a notable Canadian. Being a rabid book-lover, she chose Robert Munsch, the author of many of her favourite stories. She found Munsch’s website and eagerly composed a little message telling him about her project. Within a day, she received an email response. From Robert Munsch (or at least a reasonable facsimile). The joy was palpable.
Earlier this year, she read several Judy Blume books and went to Blume’s site, eager to share her enjoyment. Same thing. Within a day or 2, Judy Blume herself, the GREAT Judy Blume, sent her a personal response thanking her for her comments.
And her tweets to former Toronto Mayor David Miller? He responded almost instantly, although her suggestion of a dedicated Dog’s Day in Toronto might not make the agenda of any council meetings.

Scarlet will never forget these meaningful digital encounters.

I think it’s fair to say that the personal effort made by these “brands” have consolidated Scarlet as a loyal fan and customer. Another thing has happened – she now has no doubt that if she reaches out, she will be heard and responded to.

I’ve waited weeks for a response from certain service providers. I’ve joined so called “communities”, and never heard from the moderator or any representative of the company. I have seen a lot of “join our community” calls to action, which only result in frequent spammy marketing emails. Community can be defined in a lot of ways, but the prospect of joining one is not made enticing with junk mail. My faith, one could say, is shaky.

Companies like Starbucks, Dell, Scholastic, Zappos, and FlipVideo differentiate themselves by being present in the communities they foster. They build trust. They breed loyalty. And they do it out in the open.
Many companies make excuses like “nobody has time for that”, or “we can’t have these conversations in public”, or “our audience isn’t online.” Closing the door on providing service out in the open looks like you have something to hide. Showing that you’re responsive, and that you understand that social networks and the online medium are important to customers is a win-win. And yes, someone needs to manage it. Someone who is an effective communicator and cares about customer service. And someone who enjoys being online and interacting in the digital space. I bet there’s someone who’d relish the opportunity. Can you find them and empower them?
In our web development practice, we regularly consult forums and discussion boards. Response and sharing is de riguer. It’s a very give and give back community, and we have formed amazing relationships through this network of shared contribution. The thing is, these faithful responders aren’t company reps. They’re human beings with a belief in the sharing economy. They likely rate highly on any social technographics measurement. They provide an excellent example of how relationships with brands could be, if brands weren’t so concerned with building the numbers of their email list.
I invite you to conduct your own research. Fill in a contact form with a positive comment and see what happens. Search for your chosen service provider on Facebook. Send them a tweet. Is anybody out there?

The full report is ready for download. So are other local government action resources.