Selling Sympathy

And a little self-interest, too. Here's how a business major helped homeless panhandlers increase their hourly take

Amy—one of the many street people in New York City—sat on the corner of 23rd Street and Park Avenue every day begging for spare change. Equipped with only a paper coffee cup and a sign reading "Help me. I'm homeless," she patiently waited for hours until she made enough money to go on her way.

Collecting her targeted income—$30 a day—was never an easy task. However, Amy earned that much in only three hours on most days this summer after she received help from an unlikely source: a summer intern's marketing project.


  Many internships are cut-and-dried: Make some phone calls. Organize some files. Fill in for an absent employee. But at New York strategic marketing company Sinek Partners, Cornell University business major Matthew Zimmerman had to figure out a way for beggars to increase their revenue streams by creating new marketing tools—in this case, signs—for them to use.

Company CEO Simon Sinek assigned the project to Zimmerman during the last few weeks of his internship. The concept behind the experiment: Marketing products through pricing or product features alone results in only one-time purchases. However, if a customer feels an emotional attachment to the product, there is a greater chance for repeat buying and loyalty.

"My goal was to create an emotional attachment between people on the street and Amy so that they would become 'repeat customers,'" says Zimmerman.

He was also advised to keep in mind that people are interested in their own benefit when buying something, in this case the act of donating.


  Speaking with a depth of knowledge he didn't have before hitting the streets, Zimmerman explained that a typical panhandling sign describes the person's situation or status—Vietnam vet, runaway, unemployed, unlucky one, or drug addict. After interviewing several New Yorkers, however, Zimmerman found that type of sign to be usually ineffective, because it fails to create an emotional tie with the potential giver or make the giver feel good about himself or herself for donating—key elements in getting people to dig into their pockets.

To strike a chord, Zimmerman created a simple poster out of a ripped box that read, "If you give once a month, please consider me next time." He notes: "Part of the process was learning that it's all about the consumers and how they benefit from the transaction. Instead of saying, 'I'm homeless' or 'I need this,' we basically said, 'I know you feel good when you give, so can you give to me next time?'"

Amy—Zimmerman never learned her last name—certainly gave off an authentic and needy vibe. A talkative middle-aged single woman, she became homeless after contending with her husband's substance abuse problems. She was open with Zimmerman about her story.


 Although Amy was receptive to Zimmerman's project, he faced several challenges. Her sign got lost or stolen several times, and he often had trouble finding her because she always left her corner after making $30. In addition to targeting Amy, Zimmerman tried to create relationships with other homeless people. He found them even harder to track down.

Another stumbling block was stepping out of his comfort zone and actually approaching people he normally wouldn't speak to. An Albany (N.Y.) native, Zimmerman had only limited experience with homeless individuals, through volunteer work in soup kitchens.

"They were very appreciative, even though I might never see them again, which was kind of hard," Zimmerman says of the homeless people he met through this summer's project. (Throughout the rest of the summer, the Cornell junior assisted on various aspects of brand management strategy—working on small-brand audits and sitting in on presentations to clients, for example.)

So will he try again next summer? Probably not. The junior is pursuing a career in finance and plans to intern in the field next year. But when he's making the big bucks as an I-banker, he'll probably have enough to give to people like Amy—whatever their hard-luck story.

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