About a week ago I opened my mailbox to discover a booklet of coupons from Ralph’s, the grocery chain that operates here in Southern California. About 24 pages long, the booklet was filled with coupons for “green” products like organic nuts and soy milk (and — ahem — bottled water). It was printed on hard-to-recycle magazine-quality paper. I’d say that, even if I used all of the coupons in it (I cut out about half), about two-thirds of it would be tossed in the trash.
The booklet’s title was “Going Green: What We’re Doing to Help Protect the World We Share.”
I looked closely. I didn’t see any sign that it was made with recycled paper. I did find two separate phone numbers to call, one of which was ostensibly for “suggestions” on “new opportunities to conserve resources.”
I called both numbers — and a third I found later — and each time, asked the operator whether she thought it was kind of silly for Ralph’s to advertise its environmental stewardship by sending out thousands (tens of thousands? A million?) of direct-mail booklets that will probably be thrown in the trash. I asked each time if that didn’t seem a little counterintuitive.
Each time I got the same response: Thank you for your suggestions, sir, I’ll forward them on to the relevant department. Have a nice day.
(Ok, that’s not entirely true. One operator agreed with me, and even chuckled about the vast silliness of the situation. But, she told me, there was nothing she could do — I had called the Ralph’s Club hotline, where I could only ask questions about my membership in the store’s loyalty program. She gave me the third number, which I called to receive the response above.)
Since I’ve got something of a stick up my rear end about customer relations, I also sent an email. A day or so later, I got the same generic response: Thanks for your comments. We’ll send them to someone who cares. You just sit tight.
It struck me as an all-too-common mindset in marketing: You don’t have to provide quality. You just have to make people think you are.
The feeling of futility this whole episode gave me came back this week when I read the post-game reports on the April 16 Democratic debate that took place in my hometown of Philadelphia. PureBlogging is about as far from a political blog as you can get, so I’m not going to get into the gory details (full disclosure: I’m an Obama guy). But the first hour of that debate was, from a purely customer-relations standpoint, a flaming ordnance-filled train derailing over a fault line filled with radioactive plague-infected zombies.
Again, I don’t want to get into politics too deeply. But most of the political issues people seem to care about (the people I know, anyway) tend to deal with health care, or the environment, or whether we’re about to suffer a complete economic breakdown that will leave us all fighting tribal wars over the last remaining canned goods. So of course the fine minds at ABC News decided to focus on American flag lapel pins.
It’s the same mindset that made Ralph’s send out the “green” mailers: It doesn’t have to be real journalism. You just have to furrow your brow enough that people think you’re serious.
What I’m getting at is this: I’ve said before that being surrounded by incompetence tends to make you look better (and I think a nice corollary to this assertion is Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans argument). We’re all surrounded by examples of companies, media outlets, government agencies and other places that don’t really engage us on any kind of meaningful level.
This is your big chance.
Do you engage your readers?
Do you solicit emails from them on how to do better?
Do you respond to them in comments?
Most importantly: How do you engage them? Are you too busy to have a real back-and-forth with them?
Why do you have your blog?
Is it to give people a bit of real, tangible quality in a sea of mediocrity and meaningless, dumbed-down pap?
Is it to make a few bucks?
Are you the kind of blogger who respects your readers’ intelligence and sense of curiosity? Are you willing to really put in the hours it takes to provide a real service to your readers? Are you writing nonstop top-ten lists, or providing thoughtful commentary?
Are you truly attempting to engage your audience?