in Marketing

Marketing for the Homeless

Working in New York City comes with its fair share of encounters with its homeless population. During my evening commute I am confronted with several “regulars” who target certain hotspots, begging for money from the wealthy businessmen or unwitting tourist. These are the experienced homeless; they solicit money with both skill and strategy.

Could this homeless man run a website better than you?
homeless marketer ab testing his sign in nyc

A successful homeless man has the skill set of a good salesman AND marketer, created inadvertently from his need to survive. Begging is akin to a sales pitch, convincing people to donate their spare change. As it is a bare necessity of panhandling, most homeless people will be proficient in sales. However, what really distinguishes the most successful homeless men from the average hobo is the use of marketing strategy to accompany the sales process.

It was just recently that I realized what one of the homeless men I pass on my way to work was doing. More than being a salesman, he was a smart marketer.

A/B Testing for the Homeless

Cliff (not his real name) stands outside of New York Penn Station/Madison Square Garden with his double-sided sign which usually reads some derivation of “Why lie, it's for beer” and “It's for food” on the opposing side. As people walk by Cliff, he flips his sign over, displaying one side per person (to the extent to which this can be achieved in a busy area of New York). Sometimes a person will donate money to Cliff because they empathize with him, seeing the side of the sign indicating that he will use his money to feed himself. Other times people donate their money to Cliff because they find delight in his honesty or find it amusing that his sign says that his intention is to purchase an alcoholic beverage.

At the end of the day one side of his sign has earned Cliff more money than the other side, even if only by a marginal amount. The next day, Cliff makes a brand new sign. The first side of the sign has the same text as the side of the sign that has earned him the most the previous day. On the reverse of the new sign, he tries out new text and the experiment continues.

If you are familiar with internet marketing, Cliff's sign experiment might seem rather similar to A/B testing a website. One of the sides acts as a control and the other as a manipulated variable. With around half a million people passing through New York Penn Station daily, it is likely that Cliff encounters a statistically significant sample. Cliff is essentially using A/B testing to optimize his sign earnings as a website would with its page headlines or other site features.

Audience Targeting for the Homeless

As Cliff is a smart marketer, he does not rely on a single marketing tactic like A/B testing; another strategy he utilizes is audience targeting.

Cliff stands outside Madison Square Garden, the same location that the New York Knicks and New York Rangers play. I've noticed that rather than relying solely on A/B testing his signs, he implements audience targeting as well. On a day which the Knicks play, you will find Cliff standing outside with his sign, dressed head-to-toe in Knicks attire. When the Rangers play, it is obvious that Cliff is a New York hockey fan.

homeless man demonstrating audiene targeting during knicks game

He catches his target audience with his clothing, placing himself into the context of the passers-by. He is the advertisement and his signs are the hook.

The Rise of the Homeless Marketer

I spoke with Cliff and he told me that although he has only been in New York City for a little over a year, he has been homeless since he was 12-years-old. Speaking to him, it became clear that as expected, he wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing in terms of marketing. All he knew was that when he utilized these tactics, he saw more earnings than when he didn’t use them. His strategies were learned over the course of many years of being homeless. Having endured hardship, he was forced to be creative and came up with the methods he utilizes today.

Both homelessness and marketing have a lot in common. They are both very Darwinian in nature. A homeless person is fueled by the need to survive, so learns and adapts his methods for greater earnings. Marketers do the same thing. In order for their brand to thrive, they must always be learning and adapting, creating new strategies, and testing them.

The strategies that Cliff uses as a homeless person are strategies that most website owners and marketers should implement. Are you running tests? Are you creating content to match your target audience, or using targeted ads? If not, maybe you should follow in the footsteps of Cliff the homeless marketer and begin today.

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  1. Would love to see a followup where you teach Clint more and enough, such that he is no longer homeless and has a marketing job in New York.