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How Hitchhiking Made Me A Better Marketer – Vitruvian Advertising
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How Hitchhiking Made Me A Better Marketer

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This article by Howie was originally published in Fast Company.

The van driver rolled down his window and called me over. “I’m sorry I didn’t pick you up earlier–the ladies in the back wouldn’t let me.”

“That’s OK. I wouldn’t pick me up, either.” The ladies smiling, grateful to be let off the hook.

“No, I hate to pass by without helping, since I did so much hiking in my day.”

Here in South Africa, my family and I are getting used to relying on the kindness of strangers. With no car (yet), no contacts, and frequently no clue, we’ve gone from reluctantly accepting assistance to actively sticking our thumbs out, soliciting it.

Particularly when it comes to transportation. We’re about two miles up a mountain from the nearest mini-mart, and three-hour shopping trips for a cartoon of eggs, two onions, and a Cadbury Turkish Delight are getting old.

So I’ve taken to thumbing it as soon as I hear the infrequent rumble of a vehicle engine behind me. And in so doing, I’ve discovered a few things about human nature that make me a smarter marketer.

1. When I hitchhike with a child, I have better luck.

When I’m by myself, my conversion rate of vehicles to rides is quite dismal. One out of ten, or worse. And the drivers stoically reject eye contact, as if I were some kind of psycho with evil intent and the power to mesmerize them with my gaze.

When I have a child in tow, the odds change dramatically. About 50% of drivers stop, and the ones who don’t arrange their faces and gesture sympathetically about not having enough space or time or whatever it is they’re trying to communicate. What they’re really communicating is, “I’d stop if I could.”

So what’s going on? Why does a child increase my odds so dramatically?

I don’t think it’s pity. Not in a region afflicted by poverty and malnutrition and domestic violence. My well-fed, well-dressed kids are in no way Save the Children poster material compared to the dozens of children who walk the hill every day in shoes that have been handed down since the 1970s.

Rather, the presence of a child makes me safer to pick up. I’m a father; therefore I’m probably not an axe murderer. I’m a caring, affectionate father; even better. When we hear the engine approaching, we hold hands, smile, and assume thumbs-out position. Who can resist John-Boy and John Senior needing a lift to pick up Grandma Esther’s heart medicine?

The marketing message is sobering: when I’m first trying to attract prospects, who am I on the inside is far less relevant than who my prospect THINKS I am.

I’m the same person, whether I’m walking solo or dragging a kid who’d rather wait at home. Two days ago, in fact, I went to the store for tummy medicine for my eldest, who was suffering from what she likes to tell people was amoebic dysentery (partly because it sounds dramatic, and partly because it doesn’t contain the word “diarrhea”). I was tired, and busy, and yet I braved the elements in search of over the counter bismuth subsalicylate.

Couldn’t the busy motorists sense that I was on a mission of mercy? Apparently not. To get a ride on that day, I would have needed to drag my poor daughter out of her sickbed to stand with me on the side of the road, so she could demonstrate my virtue and harmlessness.

So what does this mean for marketers?

Mainly, accept that most prospects already don’t trust you. If you’re on the web, you look just like all the online businesses that have scammed or disappointed them in the past, or that they’ve heard stories about, or that they’ve made up stories about.

So include as many trust elements as you can on your landing pages. These include: photos of you and your staff, real phone number and physical address, photo of your location, trust badges like BBB, eTrust, and VeriSign, and logos of already trusted organizations like UPS, Visa, and FedEx.

Also, anticipate and acknowledge visitor concerns by answering them up front. “Yes, there are a lot of fly by night online marketing ‘gurus’ out there, but you can trust my advice since I was selected by Wiley, Inc. to write Google AdWords For Dummies. Also, my client list includes…”

Once they get to know, like and trust you, none of that will matter anymore. Your skills, your ethics, your heart will trump all the logos and badges and honors and awards and certifications you may have accrued. But in order to get to that point, bring a kid with you.

2. The driver’s not the only one who needs to agree to stop and pick me up.

The passengers can veto the driver’s decision. In the case of the van full of ladies, they did. Totally understandable, right? I’m not exactly a hulk, but I am five foot ten (on bad hair days) and I can do three consecutive pushups. What hope would seven female middle-aged tourists from Johannesburg have against me?

Very often, your prospect is not the final or only decision maker. In B2B sales, the searcher generally presents several options to the decision makers. But even for consumer sales, you need to consider the priorities, prejudices and opinions of the passengers.

Spend time discovering the stakeholder constellations for your typical prospects. Do they have to run it by their spouses? Must 20-somethings get financial buy-in from their parents? Do your prospects care about looking stupid in front of their friends?

Develop marketing content that “sells through” as well as “sells to” your prospect to the other passengers in their decision vehicle.

3. The drivers who stop for me typically have done a lot of hitchhiking in their time.

This one is really interesting to me, because it begs the question, “So, what are you going to do once you get a car?”

See, I hardly ever pick up hitchhikers. I just drive right by them, avoiding eye contact. After all, who knows what sort of crazy criminals they might be?

But now I’m on the other side. I see the rigid, fearful faces of the people who don’t stop. I see the warm, smiling faces of the ones who brake just ahead and motion out of the window for me to hop in. It’s clear which one I want to be.

So my behavior is changing based on empathy. Based on being in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes.

If you want to market effectively, this sort of perceptual shapeshifting is required. Spend some time searching as if you were your own prospect. Think about what’s at stake. What you wouldn’t know. What would scare you. What you’d want more than anything else. What promise you’d most like to hear and believe.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shopping. We’re out of bread, and the store’s far away. Wish me luck…


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