Feed the Fish: How Mister Rogers Taught Brands to Respond to Each Customer

, Posted on Apr 15


Effective online engagement, although a major factor in brand activity for some years now, is still in its infancy. Like a toddler slowly ambling through the home, the digital-to-digital interaction companies are taking on still has a long way to go before it has the skillset and enablement necessary to replace call centers and brick-and-mortar operations. However, one element of the online engagement—the argument of “handling online versus taking offline”—is rapidly becoming the hot debate for customer service professionals. The answer, though, was provided to all of us at an early age.

Fred Rogers, better known as “Mister Rogers,” was a popular children’s television host that captured imaginations and provided quality family entertainment for decades. Beginning in 1963, the show provided educational dialogue and puppetry that taught kids the meaning of cooperation, work, play and a wide assortment of skill sets. The genius of the show is not the iconic sweater or the familiar home surroundings, but instead, the delivery of messages.

In 1996, a book was published titled “Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood?: Letters to Mr. Rogers.” Still available from Amazon and recently mentioned on Reddit, the book is an open forum and dialogue of not only the interactions Rogers had with his young fans, but also insight as to why certain elements of the show were handled the way they were. A letter from one little girl is the crux of my point regarding online engagement.

Ten-year-old Meaghan asked Mister Rogers, “What is the purpose of feeding the fish every day? To demonstrate responsibility?” Rogers responded that it demonstrated the role of caring for other living things, as well as understanding that grown-ups provide care much like the food to fish. Rogers’ response is incredible, as is the follow-up letter.

“Dear Mister Rogers,

Please say when you are feeding your fish, because I worry about them. I can’t see if you are feeding them, so please say you are feeding them out loud. Katie, age 5. (Father’s note: Katie is blind, and she does cry if you don’t say that you have fed the fish).”

The very concept of the letter is heartbreaking as one can imagine the concern a child like Katie would have over this issue. Rogers’ response was an attempt to mention out loud that he was feeding the fish each time he did so. He notes, “Over the years, I’ve learned so much from children and their families. I like to think that we’ve all grown together.”

The fact that a very successful television host adapted his show due to the concern of a visually impaired little girl illustrates not only the care this man had for children, but also the impact messaging can have, and the responsibility that comes with it. This responsibility is shared by brands online, who have an enormous audience but must cater not only to the whims of a few, but also explain interactions to the masses.

Online, we are all Katie when it comes to a brand’s offline follow-up. Without knowing that a discussion has been taken to private messages or shifted to phone/email (which is a whole other topic in and of itself), it is easily presumed that the brand failed to “feed the fish” (provide care or feedback) and, in turn, the issue “dies.” The first impulse of many brands is to not provide a trail of assistance to avoid copy-cat efforts by customers looking to receive perks/care they don’t qualify for, but in turn, the only perception that can emerge is neglect—that the brand and its agents have, again, failed to feed the fish.

So what does this mean? The simple answer is to provide unique, quality responses to every received comment. For massive brands like fast-food chains, automobile manufacturers, mobile providers, etc., this is a significant undertaking, but a necessary one. The audience may not get sad like young Katie to think that a service complaint has been overlooked, but instead, show a different emotion: anger. The original complaint is effectively empowered well beyond its own merit when the audience feels it must champion the concern due to an indifferent brand, creating a wave of negative feedback no brand would appreciate. A copied and pasted response does not provide the audience confidence that the task of “feeding” is being undertaken, regardless of it being routine or expected. Instead, it requires the unique attention of the brand because, inherently, the brand has assumed the responsibility of taking care of others due to the trust put into them by the consumer.

Being responsible to the concerns of the public is a very real part of doing business today, whether companies appreciate that burden or not. Effective online engagement requires unique rules and policies that go beyond the individual resolution and into the core perception of the public. Brands, as a result, must adapt their online behaviors to meet the needs of members of the public who do genuinely care that issues are being resolved, that concerns are being addressed. Without an effective policy that involves each received concern being addressed in some manner, brands create the perception that they’ve left the fish to die. And nobody wants that in their neighborhood, real or online.

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