A couple weeks ago, the interns (Katelin, Lauren and I) embarked on a trip to Pantops Shopping Center to get letter signatures to send to a local councilman on behalf of Great Eastern Management, an Ivy Group client. The purpose of the letter was to ask the Charlottesville City Council to reconsider its removal of two bus stops in the shopping center.
As interns, we're asked to take on a variety of tasks with fluctuating levels of perceived significance. So, we admit that we initially underestimated the purpose - and experiential value – of our letter assignment. The act of taking away two bus stops from a shopping center may have seemed trivial to three college-aged interns who drive to work, but it was a much bigger deal to the patrons of Pantops Shopping Center, and for legitimate reasons.
We read the letters we were going to ask people to sign. There was something about safety, convenience, and a couple other bases of reason for having three bus stops in the center. Let's see if we can get anybody to sign these...we might have to do some convincing, we said. Anyways, what are the results of these letters going to be? Will "the government" care?
Upon arriving in the center and broaching the subject of bringing back the three bus stops, we didn't have to do any convincing. We were the ones quickly informed by customers waiting at the bus stop.
Oh, yes, why did they take those stops away?
Thank you so much for doing this. We hope you get many more signatures.
I want some of those letters. I want to take those to the Downtown Mall and just ask everyone to sign.
Customers told us about missing the bus often and having to walk through the middle of the large central parking lot because it only stopped on one side of the shopping center.RadioShack employees told me that they would be talking to customers interested in or even buying a product, and their customer would ask them to please hurry or they'd even leave in the middle of a deal to run and catch the bus. The manager at Aaron's told Lauren that he had received numerous complaints from his customers about the reduction in stops.
A sizable portion of the center's shoppers use the bus as transportation, and the change to one stop put a lot of stress on their shopping experience. They had less time to catch the bus, as it made its quick stop in and out of the center. Indeed, the bus came through twice while we were there and, as expected due to the variables of city transportation, it didn't arrive on schedule.
We interns learned that we didn't know enough about the customers to which we are advertising. When an older woman asked me to sign her name for her because doing so herself causes too much pain in her wrist and hand, it sunk in. She asked where we were from and about what I was studying in college, told me a bit about her own son and that she admired my ambition. She thanked us sincerely and then made a slow walk across the parking lot to the stores she came to visit. Safety was a true concern to her, and the change to one bus stop visibly impacted her.
Katelin, Lauren, and I are here with The Ivy Group for three months or less during our summer breaks. Katelin carried experience from her previous time here, but we still lack a lot of the background needed to understand well the customers of our clients. Thoughtful conversations at the bus stop and with employees in the shopping center helped bridge that knowledge gap. We were able to gain insight about the shopping environment and mindsets of customers. We can be told that value and convenience are primary matters for Pantops shoppers, but walking through the stores and standing at the stop showed us how.
To brainstorm and promote most effectively, advertisers need experiences like we had on our short trip. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then you can imagine how elucidating it was for us to walk through Pantops Shopping Center with the purpose of talking to customers and merchants.
Some tasks may be more exciting than others - you can guess where organizing filing cabinets falls - but everything done can be learned from.
In a little over an hour, we collected 37 signatures. If we had stayed longer, we would've encountered many more people ready to sign.
It's up to the city to decide on the bus stops, and there are certainly reasons that community members favor a single stop in Pantops Shopping Center. But the council now has a better understanding of how the community is affected by its decisions. Thus, communication and interaction have gone a long way for the council and for us.
The lesson of interacting and engrossing yourself in an environment deserves emphasis. It's easy to isolate yourself in an office and let your own views and assumptions guide your thinking. Get out and take in your audience. That is a lesson we learned as interns, but it shouldn't be forgotten by anyone who is performing a service for others, especially advertisers.