Today I met a beggar in Jerusalem.
Anyone who’s visited this city knows that’s no big news. But this beggar was different.
He was a blind man standing by the crosswalk lights on a street corner near the center of town. When the light was red and passersby were gathering beside him, he played a cheerful tune on his harmonica and then stopped to heap loud blessings on our heads.
I loved the blessings and the huge smile on his face, so I gave him three shekels — more than I would normally give a random beggar on the street. And then, from a distance, I spied on him a little, impressed by how many people gave him donations. I wondered how much he was taking in.
(Maybe I was also wondering if he was really blind…but that’s a different story.)
I asked myself, what makes a highly effective schnorrer in a city that is home to many “competitors?”
As a professional marketer, I’m not too proud to take some tips from him and the other beggars of Jerusalem.
Marketing lessons for the beginner beggar
1. As seen on TV: Whoever invented those red strings should be awarded the Israeli Panhandlers Association’s Order of Merit. Savvy Jerusalem beggars hand them out freely. It costs them pennies and hugely increases their takings. For “big” donors, these beggars often attach a blue hamsa pendant to the red string to ward off the evil eye.
Marketing lesson: Offer attractive, low-cost freebies to get people to pay attention to you, and reward your bigger customers with a sense of added value (and who can put a price tag on unspecified Kabbalistic powers?). Also, it always helps if Madonna does a celebrity endorsement.
2. The dreaded Kotel clutch: There are good moments and not-so-good moments to solicit a donation, and the smarter beggars know how to pick them. When I’m standing at the crosswalk waiting for the lights to change — perfect. On the other hand, pulling on my arm while I’m talking to God at the Western Wall will not gain you the desired response.
Marketing lesson: Don’t try the hard sell at inappropriate moments. You will only annoy people. Identify windows of opportunity when you can win friends and influence people.
3. Just be normal: In some countries, muttering, legless beggars with flies swarming around their mouths are the big earners (and some even “groom” their children for this career). But here in Israel, I’m inclined to think that polite, clean and respectable is an easier sell. Recently I was approached by a presentable, middle-aged woman who told me she was a widow needing help raising her children. The shock of being asked by someone who seemed so normal, someone almost like me, spurred me to give her a larger-than-normal amount.
Marketing lesson: Create a human face for your brand that people can relate to and identify with. It’s hard to ignore someone who kind of reminds you of your mother/sister/third-grade teacher.
4. Content is king: Jerusalem beggars often hand out photocopies of prayers, or sometimes maps or postcards, as a way to endear themselves to potential donors. But the most common free content offered is blessings of all kinds. I love it when beggars bless me extravagantly! And if even half of their blessings come true, I’ll be giving birth to bouncing boy octuplets sometime in the future.
Marketing lesson: In the industry, we call this “content marketing,” or the art of attracting attention from potential customers by giving away free information, entertainment and inspiration. Content marketing is my area of professional expertise, so I’m always open to new ideas. I wonder if offering free blessings could generate us more leads on our clients’ blogs?
5. Don’t insult my intelligence: Sometimes it’s a good thing to specify exactly what you need the money for. For example, “I just got laid off and I’ve got five kids to support.” However, asking for a large sum because you need to “catch a bus to Tel Aviv” or you “haven’t eaten in days” somehow always comes off as desperate and dodgy. At best, you’ll be offered a bus ticket or a sandwich (for the record, no one has ever taken me up on these offers).
Marketing lesson: Don’t be dishonest or implausible in your marketing. No one likes that niggling sense that they’re being taken for a ride.
6. Would you like fries with that?: Often a second person will approach me when I’m in the middle of giving to a beggar, and also ask for a donation. Kind-hearted folks won’t usually say no once they’re already in their giving mode.
Marketing lesson: Upsell at checkout. When someone already has their wallet open is the best moment to make a further sale.
7. Location, location, location: This golden rule of marketing certainly applies to the beggars of Jerusalem. Most seem to congregate at the Western Wall or the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, where competition is so fierce that they need to be aggressive to attract attention (hence the dreaded Kotel clutch). That blind beggar was smart enough to choose a different location, close to the action but away from the hordes. Also, I’ve noticed that the guys positioning themselves on the steps down to the Western Wall make an absolute killing with hardly any begging involved. Their customers come to them fresh and open-handed, ready for an uplifting experience at the Kotel.
Marketing lesson: The positioning of your business (whether online or brick-and-mortar) will have a massive impact on the quantity and quality of your potential client base. Location is one of the most important marketing considerations. Choose it wisely.
As I wrote this article, I wondered if I was reading too much into the marketing wisdom of the beggars of Jerusalem.
But then I told my husband about that blind beggar. And do you know what he said?:
“That guy? I also saw him today. I gave him three shekels. Then he gave me the most amazing blessings, so I gave him 10 more!”