The (In)Effectiveness of the Signature People

Yesterday, my wife and I went by the library so she could drop off some books.    I sat, with the car running, oustside as she went inside to renew one of them.  As I waited, I watched a 50 year old man sway back and forth in front of the library attempting to gather signatures for some environmental cause.

I decided the man was obviously passionate about what he was doing because he was giving up a beautiful Saturday for his cause (in our neck of the woods, a beautiful Saturday is to die for and doesn’t come often).  I stared at his sign he wore, dangling from his neck.  He carried 5 or 6 pads of paper for signatures and a fist full of pens.  And then I began to watch his “market.”  The people he wanted to inform, sway, or even just get support from.

In the 10 or so minutes I was there, I saw about 30 percent of the people he attempted to engage actually gave him the figurative time of day.  “Sign a petition for a [blah blah blah, I don’t remember what it was]” was his slogan – his initiation – his attempt.  Of that 30 percent, probably 80 percent actually signed, another 10 percent asked for information to study, and the other 10 percent had either already signed or didn’t want to.

Now, what got to me was the difficulty he had with the initiation.  In all these years, we have not come up with a better way to break down the obvious walls that passers-by put up to those guys holding pens and signature lines.  Why?  Why do we not want to be informed?  Is it because we feel they are slanted (which they are)?  Is it because they’re deceptive (some, maybe)?  Is it simply because we don’t want to have our errand or day interrupted?  I think all of these are valid reasons.  But, what hits me square in the face is that these people, who really probably have a wonderful cause they are trying to garner support for, don’t have any other means to get it.  They don’t understand that there has to be a better way.

We left the library and I brought the issue up to my wife for discussion as to why it looked like such a feeble attempt.  She had some brilliant points, one of which I think is worth considering.  Our society is all about “me” and “now.”  Sad as it is, it’s not going to change that quickly.  So, if you’re trying to gather support for some big well-deserved issue, start by giving someone a reason – albeit a small one – to stay a minute, get educated, and possibly support the cause.  Give that person value.  Give them something more than education.  Give them something more than just a sucker or a pen.  That’s not value.  That’s a cheap party favor.  Offer them something for their time.  It’s worth it isn’t it?

Oh, and please don’t argue with them.  If I don’t want to sign your petition, I certainly want to sign it much less when you start telling me how horrible of a person I am by not caring about the environment enough to put my signature on a pad of paper.  If you want to argue, get a digital notepad so you don’t have to cut down a tree for that paper.  Jerk.

(P.S.  The irony of my car running during this whole time was not lost on me.)

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

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