Beyond all this social media engagement conversation, something really simple happened yesterday that I had to pause and ponder.

My dad bought a pack of oats last month – he was bored with Quaker Oats and wanted to try another brand. So he got a 500gm pack of Bagrry’s Oats. Came home….opened the pack…only to find it having a foul smell. He had checked the expiry date and there was 6 more months left for it to officially expire! It costs below Rs. 100, but instead of just letting it go, he spoke to the retail store where he got it from – for replacement, of course. They refused!

He asked me to check Bagrry’s website online and mail them – he gave me the content of the mail too! I checked the site – there was a contact box – wrote his content and sent it to them. If I’m allowed a mild digression, Bagrry’s even has a customer feedback page titled, ‘Your Blessings‘ – quite cheesy, I know!

Nothing happened for 3 weeks!

pen-nibThen, my dad did what he always, always does, given he is not net savvy…rather, not very keen to get hooked on to it at his age (70+!)…he wrote a letter. Ever since I’ve known him as my dad, he always takes the hand-written letter route – I’ve seen it work fabulously well almost every time, for any purpose!

And, it worked! Bagrry’s sent a manager-type person yesterday, to our home, to apologize for the inconvenience and he replaced the merchandise with a 1kg pack.

I still remember – at some point when I was in school, I was tremendously inspired by my dad’s letter writing skills. I recall writing 2 letters that worked brilliantly – one to Godrej Soaps, asking them to make a musk soap. The second one was to Maggi – asking them to reintroduce my favorite, Lasagna flavored Maggi that they had unceremoniously discontinued way back.

In case of Godrej, I got a letter signed by Tanya Godrej (back then!) telling me that they’d consider my suggestion. Plus, 3 packs of a new soap that they were yet to launch – a cologne variant of Cinthol, which I totally loved! As for Maggi, they sent home a sales representative, who said his company will look into the suggestion and also gave me 12 packs of Maggi free, for the effort!

But one of the best instances I remember is a combined effort – me and my dad together. One of our favorite stories…of all time…is Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. I must have been in class 3 or 4 then and asked my dad if there was an animated version of the story. He said he was not aware of one but told me we could ask Disney! So, we wrote a letter to Walt Disney Corporation, in the US – this was back in the 80s…remember! I recall sealing the airmail envelope, with tons of stamps on it.

I forgot all about it for a few weeks, till we got a response – a hand-written letter from someone I don’t quite recollect the name right now…do not have this letter anymore, unfortunately! But his designation was CEO…something. He thanked us (it was sent in my name, so thanked me!) and said it was a great suggestion. He also said he agreed with us that the beautiful story of Happy Prince would come out alive in Disney’s animation. And that they would consider making a film based on the story.

I went around school showing that letter, but back then, in my little school (in Srirangam, Trichy, if you must know), nobody was aware of what or who Disney was. I don’t know if there was ever a film on The Happy Prince, but that effort…rather, gesture, was enough for me, back then. It was the same thing with Godrej and Maggi too – the gesture mattered more than the action. A hand-written letter takes real effort and shows how serious a customer is, about his cause. Brands better take note of the effort. It does not mean, however, that an email is not as serious – it sure is. But, there are more emails than there are hand-written letters, in these days. So, make your effort stand out, if you want a brand/ company to take a serious note of you.

Now, think about all the brand buzz and brand bashing we see online, across so many sites and tools. It’s quite an overdose, in reality. Bagrry’s did not respond to my online contact – they did, for the letter my dad sent…for all you know, they probably don’t have any process/ person to check responses coming from their website!

The point is…to be alert. This is what we (at Edelman, of course!) sell to our clients as a listening program. Its purpose is merely to be alert and aware of what people are saying about you. They may have stopped saying it using older methods like letters, but they continue to air their opinion…across easier platforms like social networking sites and blogs.

The next point is…to react. To be responsive. Given the sheer numbers, it is perfectly alright to be selectively responsive. But, be responsive. Choose who you want to respond to and do it with passion. Smarter organizations will intelligently substitute this letter/ email business by making available their own outlet…across multiple platforms, so that customers can reach them for whatever reason. This, in essence, is ‘owned media’, that we sell so convincingly to our clients.

Forget the Facebooks and Twitters of this world – removed of all jargon and complexity, this…is social media engagement!

Picture courtesy: Linda Cronin via Flickr