Hug me mister!

I was recently in New York City for the TBEX ’10 conference. I greatly enjoyed my time and while the conference was bustling, I did find time to step outside for a moment alone during one of the sessions. I love to people watch, it’s fun and on this day, I was doing just that. Standing back from the sidewalk, I watched several passers-by strolling, striding and even (gasp!) running along.

And then, man oh man, did I wish I had a camera. Along strode a young man with a sign that said FREE HUGS. It was the sign I noticed first and elated, I started for him. And then I stopped dead in my tracks, because I saw something else.

Not his face full of piercings

Not his dirty black skinny jeans

Not the tattered backpack over his shoulder

Not the tattoos on his arms

Nope, none of these things could have deterred me more than the look on his face. Sour, hurried, cranky and ZERO eye contact with anyone. His long-legged quick stride would have made it impossible to catch him anyway. I shrank back into the small alcove I’d claimed on the street and let him pass me by.

Why would someone who seemed intent on promoting human interaction in a densely populated urban area (I mean, come on, a sign that says free hugs?) use every possible form of body language to seem to want just the opposite of that? I was befuddled.

Maybe you’ll say he was “off-duty” but no, the sign wasn’t tucked under his arm or stuffed into his pack, he held it firmly in front of his chest, as close to eye-level as possible. Maybe it was a fraternity thing? I don’t know.

What I do know is that often marketers do the same thing. They design loyalty programs, send out email campaigns, follow a thousand people on twitter and friend and like it up on facebook, but when someone comes to them, hoping to act on a promise or an implication (we marketers are the BEST at that) they’re standoffish and leave it to the “service professionals”. I wonder, is that the right way to respond?

Maybe they’re not your target audience now (maybe I wasn’t that guy’s target audience, but I sure could have used a hug that day) but eventually they will be. And when you spread your message through traditional and social channels, it’s your obligation to manage the relationship according to the promises you put out there, right?

Or am I just pissed because that guy didn’t want to give me a hug?