What a Beggar Can Teach Us About Marketing


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I was driving through San Francisco, today, to the offices of Wiley who just published my book on Multichannel Marketing. On the way back, near the onramp to the Bay Bridge, a number of beggars were working the traffic lights. Same as every day, they were carrying signs made out of cardboard with a written request for a few bucks. They carried their signs through the line of cars waiting at the red light.

One beggar’s sign read: “I am too ugly to get …, so I need …”, and the rest I should probably not post here.

What’s to say that this message is the best at getting drivers to fork over a few bucks? It is plenty easy for the beggar to answer that question. All it takes, is a few more pieces of card board and a few different signs with other pitches written on them. At every 3 minute interval of green and red lights he can try out a different message. Before the hour is over he will know which one is most effective.

Well, in direct marketing we do champion-challenger testing. In web analytics we do A/B testing or even multivariate testing. That is old news to the beggars in San Francisco.

But wait for this.

As it was a sunny day my windows were rolled down. The beggar started walking down the line. Shoot I thought. Now I am going to be on the hook with my windows open. He will make me feel too bad to leave without providing a few bucks.

But to my surprise that isn’t what happened.

The beggar simply wished a good day and continued walking down the line. Huh? I guess he knows that the cars at the highway ramp during commute hours are often by the same people every single day. Each of the beggars is there almost every day. So if I won’t pay a buck today, I might do so tomorrow. Rather than burning bridges, he built rapport for the future.

Who knew that the beggar was a relationship marketer! He is more interested in maximizing the life time value of his customers than extorting a quick buck. Some online marketers still have much to copy there.

Hats off to these street artists! I couldn’t do what they do every day.


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