The Powerful Marketing Trick I Learned from a Homeless Guy

So there I was, cruising downtown Phoenix on a sunny Saturday morning. As with most January days in Arizona, it was a pleasant 70 degrees, so I had the windows down and the music up, listening to George Strait’s newest greatest-hits release—the man’s voice is butter.

As I pulled up to a red light, I noticed a homeless man walking up and down the median, carrying a cardboard sign with a few words scrawled on it.

I couldn’t exactly make out what words he had scribbled on his blank canvas, but this guy was absolutely raking in the dollar bills. As he made his way through the caravan of waiting cars, the man would politely make eye contact with each driver, gesture with his head to look at the sign, and then he’d smile and wait.

And with a closing rate that would make any seasoned sales person blush, all but one driver happily lowered their windows and handed this man a few bucks.

I never thought I’d say this, but I was really excited for the homeless guy to approach my car. 

I couldn’t wait to see what message he had written on his sign that was moving people to act in such an enormous way. Once he approached my car and I read the words, it not only became abundantly clear why so many people were throwing cash at this man, but it also taught me a crucial lesson about effective marketing that has drastically improved how I communicate with my audience.

The Competition is Fierce

With the consistent sunshine and warm temperatures, it’s no surprise that Phoenix draws in its fair share of homeless men and women. At most major exit ramps and intersections all over the city, you can find quite a few folks holding up signs in an attempt to extract a few dollars from the cars that pass by.

At the more crowded intersections, competition can get pretty crazy and since their survival is dependant on it, many of these men and women utilize very specific messaging in order to increase their daily profits. As I’m sure you’ve seen, however, the vast majority of these signs not only look similar but also incorporate a very predictable set of themes.

Whether they are a veteran, a father or mother without work, or someone who has simply fallen on hard times, most of their signs follow a common formula:

Who they are + What they want + ‘God Bless’

Although there are minor tweaks here and there, the signs all basically look the same, which means that after a while, none of them really jump out at you.

I am not writing this to diminish the hardships of homelessness or to discount the uniqueness of the individuals holding these signs. No, I am simply observing that many of their marketing efforts fall on deaf ears due to the commonalities of their messaging.

The Same Rules Apply in Business

When you think about it, there are actually a lot of commonalities between you running and growing your business and the homeless person maximizing the dollars they collect each day to survive.

Whether it’s an overcrowded intersection or a saturated marketplace, you both have to deal with the competition.

Whether it’s a cardboard sign or an email blast, you both have to communicate effectively with your audience.

And whether it’s snagging a few bucks for food or closing that game-changing client, your survival depends on connecting with and persuading specific people to take action.

With your livelihood on the line, it’s no surprise that you want to be as successful as possible.

So what do you do?

You look to others in the marketplace to see what they are doing, and you adopt, slightly adapt, and then implement your own version of whatever it is that you see is working. And similarly to how the repeated and predictable messaging of the homeless persons’ sign lessened their attention-grabbing effectiveness, you as a business owner can fall into the same trap of not fully connecting with your audience by following trends that ultimately blend you with your competition.

The solution to this is simple yet takes ample courage to pull off. And that is exactly what this man executed so beautifully.

So back to this homeless guy and how he was crushing the competition.

As he approached my car, I read his sign, and upon reading it, my mind was blown. I instantly grabbed my wallet intending to give this man some money, but I had no cash. His message was so effective, however, that I started scouring my car, looking for something to give him.

The only thing I could find was a fresh new box of organic protein bars that I had just bought for around $12. Without even thinking, I lowered my window, said hello and handed this man the entire thing.

And the crazy thing was, he wasn’t even asking for a single thing.

His sign didn’t follow the common formula that his competitors did, and it was for that very reason that I was so moved to give this guy whatever I could.

His sign went so against the grain that it shook me to action in a new and powerful way.

It simply said:

“Smile. I’d Gladly Change Places With You.”

What We Can Learn from This

What made this guy’s messaging so effective was that I was not expecting it at all. I was ready to read yet another sign with the same themes and wording as all the others, and it was the fact that this sign was so disruptively unique that allowed it to cut through the noise and instantly move me to action.

This is not groundbreaking stuff I am sharing with you.

It’s common knowledge that you need to stand out from your competition in order to attract your audience to your products and services. And there are obviously proven marketing strategies and tactics that increase engagement and conversion rates.

It’s crucial to remember, however, that your audience has become aware of and desensitized to these tactics. Like drivers passing by the cardboard signs that all seem to blend together, when your audience identifies predictable commonalities in the messaging they see every day, they can easily lump you into the same category with your competition, making it extremely difficult for you to truly connect.

So I am urging you to go against the grain from time to time. In a way that is unique and authentic to your brand and business, engage your audience in a bold way.

Intentionally do something that isn’t a tip from the pros.

Strategically break from what everyone else is doing and cut through the noise.

Obviously, this will get their attention, but it will also remind your audience that you are not your competition. It will connect your audience to the very aspects of your business that no one else in your industry can replicate because they are indicative of your individuality as a business owner.

People enjoy doing business with other people, not with templates and scripts they have seen a thousand times.

So fully embrace and communicate these aspects of your business with your audience in order to connect with them more deeply.

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