Keep Out

Today, I got dumped.

And, I’m not sure which stings more: that I didn’t see it coming, or that the dumper has already changed the locks on me.

For many months now, I’ve been an active member of PetSmart’s Pet Parents online community — a collection of pet owners who contribute their opinions on relevant topics on a weekly basis. Each week, I would receive an email notifying me of new surveys, questions, and contests; and I always logged in to the site to submit my responses. I was asked my thoughts on topics ranging from my spending habits and merchandise preferences, PetSmartto my pet’s behavior and my beliefs as a pet owner. Often, the questions and surveys focused on various PetSmart initiatives and branding.

I volunteered 10-20 minutes of my time, week in and week out. I did this for a few primary reasons:

  1. The most obvious: the $5-10 Amazon gift cards I would occasionally receive as a participation incentive
  2. I’m a proud “dog mom” and enjoy contributing to a cause that benefits pets
  3. PetSmart made me feel valued as a participant and customer, a message that was reinforced frequently through group messages and community brand discussions

However, that warm, fuzzy feeling from reason #3 clearly didn’t count for much. Today, completely out of the blue, Pet Parents gave me the boot. I received a “Dear John” email that basically said, “Thanks for all your hard work, but we’ve shut down your account. Here’s $5 for your troubles.” Here’s an excerpt:

We’d like to extend our most sincere appreciation and thanks to you for your willingness to participate in The PetSmart Pet Parents Community. However, it’s time to give others a chance to participate and we’re sad to say that at this time your membership in the community has come to an end.

As of today (4/3/2012) your username and password will no longer grant you access to The Pet Parents Community. We are very grateful to you for making the commitment to our community and sorry to see you leave. If you qualified for any incentives during the month of March, you will receive your e-certificate in a few weeks. Additionally, we are sending you a $5 gift certificate as a token of our appreciation for your excellent membership.

While I completely understand the need for turnover in a group like this, I’m not thrilled with the way PetSmart went about it. For one, it’s simply bad form to suddenly lock out users who’ve contributed much of their time and effort, and who really felt like part of the community. You don’t create loyal customers and brand evangelists… And then make them feel expendable. A simple warning email one month before my membership was cancelled would’ve softened the blow.

More importantly, though, this treatment is completely untrue to the PetSmart brand. It became clear through all the branding-focused surveys and questions that PetSmart values family, community, and a sense of belonging. The company wants pet owners to feel like PetSmart understands their values and really cares about them and their pets. Abruptly cutting off a community member and effectively “changing the locks” on the Pet Parents website doesn’t exactly jive with the happy, inclusive mood PetSmart is hoping to evoke. Instead of increasing the sense of connection I feel with PetSmart, the message I received today had the opposite effect.

So, in summary, consider this my open letter to the Pet Parents facilitators. It’s not just the hurt feelings of a jilted ex-participant; it’s the analysis of a branding professional who’s come to care about the PetSmart brand and is sorry to see it acted out like this. Time to take my 20 minutes a week elsewhere!