Split Test Marketing Lessons from Panhandlers

To prove the idea that effectively targeting your message to your audience is critical,  this marketing blogger decided to illustrate the importance of a split test campaign (A/B testing) using an experiment with the signage for a homeless man.

The challenge

The blogger began his analysis of the homeless man’s campaign by noticing that his signage was in need of an overhaul. It was brown cardboard and largely featured “Hi, I’m Keith” with a number of other details too small to read in passing. In addition, the sign had no major call to action.

The experiment

The next problem was that his cup (goal) of what he wanted people to do, was tucked between his sign between that and his leg and was not very inviting. This would be like putting an opt-in form or buy button on the footer of a lengthy website tucked in the corner blended with the website colors so you can barely see it.

So they began with a single change (marketing split test A). They decided to at least make the homeless man’s goal a little more appealing, so asked him to pick up the cup and try that for a while. This didn’t help his conversions much at all. Then they implemented marketing split test B:

What we did here was quite different than what most homeless people would do. We focused on a different angle. We already have the “I’m homeless, help me” stigma attached to people that are sitting on the side of the street with a cup, so we don’t necessary need to make that a prominent part of our banner.

They changed the signage from cardboard to white to avoid the negative associations that they have with cardboard and homeless people. Additionally, they adjusted the messaging on the sign to introduce a bribe. The sign basically says “hey I’m homeless, help me, donate to help feed my family and pay my medical bills . . . but not only that, if you donate right now I’ll give you a free squirt of hand sanitizer”.

The outcome

The results were impressive: the experiment improved the homeless man’s earnings by over 100% over several days. This simple marketing concept can be used in any type of marketing campaign, even those that are trying to sell a product or service by applying it to list building, appropriate messaging and offering incentive. One solid strategy of building a list is that you get people looking at your opt-in form then give them something for free aka a bribe to get them to pull the trigger and fill out the opt-in form for your email list.

A similar experiment was conducted by a copywriter in New York who developed a campaign to assist panhandlers with their message. He  handed out these messages at random to people who approached him for money, explaining why he thought the economy would be stimulated by the street signs.

Instead of the typical “Homeless and hungry, please help”, the messages state: “Please Support Pres. Obama’s Stimulus Plan, and begin right here … at the bottom … Thank you.’’ which were more effective in targeting the current thoughts and concerns of the potential clients. Once again, the measured results show that this proved to be an effective campaign. One of the panhandlers said “I think I made 10 or 20 dollars more yesterday than before. So maybe the sign is already working.’’


  1. Avatar Robert Scott Lawrence says:

    I’m reminded of the new William Boyd novel where the fleeing protagonist — now homeless — steals a blind man’s cane to improve his daily take from panhandling. It’s undeniable that guys with good shticks make more latka. The angry panhandler shaking the tin cup in your face is less likely to get your dollar than the guy with the funny sign.

    Some of the more humorous signs floating around are collected here: http://www.holytaco.com/25-awsome-homeless-guy-signs/

  2. Avatar law firm website says:

    100% increase? That really is impressive. I’ve got to say, this was a pretty good experiment and it earned the poor man some money. I guess design and first impression is everything!

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