Content marketing tips: 17 things panhandlers can teach us about content marketing

I had the opportunity to speak at Content Jam 2013, Chicago’s content marketing conference. In my talk, I showed why content marketing is actually a lot like panhandling. Say what?

Check out the slides here: 17 things that Panhandlers can teach us about Content Marketing from Brad Farris

It happens to you every day. You walk down the street and you encounter the Streetwise vendor, or a woman huddled in blankets under a doorway. People are looking for handouts, or donations at every turn. Do you give? Not to everyone, right? How do you choose to give to one, and not another…

It happens to you every day. You are scrolling through your twitter feed, or weeding out your email box, and you encounter some piece of potentially useful information. Do you click? Not on every one, right? How do you choose to give to one and not another…

“Successful panhandling is a lot like successful advertising,” says Cathy Davies, “It’s reaching a jaded audience in a saturated market by finding a message that jumps out and grabs you.”

In an attempt to celebrate those on the cutting edge of content marketing I bring you 17 content marketing tips from panhandlers that can make you a better content marketer.

1. Treat it like a job.

If you are going to make it hustling on the streets, you have to out and do it every day — start early and keep going. The same is true of content marketing! Keeping new, fresh, high quality content out there is a lot of work. It’s needs to be something you commit to doing. Set it as a priority, and make it happen.

2. Go where the traffic is.

You never see a panhandler standing on a lonely corner saying, “Where are all the people? If I just had people walking by I could get some money.” But I see content marketers all the time who are writing great content but seeing no traffic. There might be some technical SEO reasons for that — but usually the reason is that they didn’t do their keyword research. If you want more traffic, position your content where there are more people looking!

3. Be Useful.

You see this all the time with panhandlers.  They’ll help you find an address you are looking for, they might shine your shoes, or wash your windows. How is your content helpful? Does it answer a question, teach a new concept, or offer insight that your reader wasn’t aware of? If it’s not useful for them they are a lot less likely to read it.

4. Make a personal connection, be vulnerable.

Your prospect is a real person. You should be a real person too. On the street you see panhandlers who will offer you a part of their story to form a connection. On-line it’s good practice to show some vulnerability too. Tell part of your story, be self-deprecating, show us you care.

5. Everyone loves a good story.

Every panhandler has a story. If you don’t think that’s true, just ask them! Offering your expertise in the form of a story is much more compelling than just diving into a list of bullet points.

6. Be Specific. Always have a clear call to action.

One of the most important content marketing tips is to have a strong call to action. We’re busy people. We are distracted, juggling multiple tasks and always trying to stay one step ahead of the game. There are lots of factors involved in our decision to give or not to give (or click). Be clear about what you want people to do. You don’t see panhandlers who have a big story on their cardboard sign and then just leave it up to the reader about how to act. They have a hat, or cup and they say, “Can you spare some change..?” You need to be clear and direct about what you want people to do next once they’ve read and appreciated your content.

7. Be Honest.

When a panhandler approaches me I get cautious; I think, “What do they want?” If any part of their story or presentation makes me suspicious I’m ready to bail. Doesn’t that happen to you on the web too? When I land on a good piece of content I’m usually looking for the “catch”. The only way to disarm that is to be up-front and totally honest.

8. Humor works. Everyone likes to laugh.

I’ve often walked by a panhandler who threw out a good one liner, or who’s sign had something creative and thought, “Wow, that’s worth a buck…” Now think how much more likely you are to finish reading something that’s both entertaining and useful? How much more likely are you to share it?

9. Be one of a kind.

One of the problems that panhandlers face is that there are so many people in need. Which one do you give to? Do your prospects have the same problem? If you serve everyone, then no one knows if you are right for them. Be unique, be remarkable, be one of a kind and see how that works. (How has it worked for Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Weird Al Yankovich, or Frank Oz?)

10. Don’t be afraid of a little controversy.

To stand out in a crowded field you need to take risks. Remarkable people sometimes take unpopular views, or do things that are a bit out there. There are plenty of panhandlers who have used political or religious slogans to connect with passersby. You don’t have to go that route, but you shouldn’t be afraid to take a stand.

11. Be adaptable. Do more of what works.

Experimentation is a key skill for panhandlers and content marketers. Try something, measure the results; try something else. When something works do more of it.

12. Adapt to what’s working for others.

Don’t be shy — steal any good idea you can find. I sign up for every email newsletter I can find (to see what they are trying and experiment on that for our site). Look around, see what’s working, and test it for yourself.

13. Good images help.

People like pretty pictures. A quick look at the evolution of FaceBook, Google+, Instagram, etc. will show you that. Don’t neglect images on your site. Make them remarkable and shareable.

14. “People in beaters give more than people in BMW’s”

Every panhandler knows that it’s not the rich people who stop and give, it’s the everyman. When you are reaching out to bloggers and journalists who might want to publicize your site don’t go for the “A-listers”, go for other blogs that are at your level, in your league. They are more likely to respond, and their traffic might be better too.

15. When all else fails, make it a contest.

People love to win, they love free things. If you can create a contest for something that your target market finds valuable, you will attract traffic and engagement. But be careful, think it through, and make sure you can convert that contest traffic into something valuable for you!

16. Be an artist!

Everyone has a special talent, a gift that they’ve been given that the world needs. Now is the time to put that gift out into the world. So whether you are a street performer, a “human statue”, a recipe blogger, or a business person, the world needs your art. Put it out there.

17. Say Thank You!

It’s just polite.

“Like any entrepreneur, a panhandler is out to make money in the most efficient way possible. They’re rather like salespeople everywhere — many even conclude their transaction with a cheery ‘Have a nice day!’ ” said cultural anthropologist Louisa Stark, whose research on the marketing of mendicants has been published in the New England Journal of Public Policy. SF Gate, 7/1/2001

Is there any content marketing tips you’d add? Have you seen panhandlers do something creative that you think content marketers can learn from?


  1. Well, Brad, the title alone got my attention! I wonder though. Isn’t there always a tension between being authentic and doing whatever it takes to stand apart? How do you walk this tightrope in your marketing? Love to hear your thoughts in the comment section at the BizSugar community where everyone can benefit.

  2. Laurie Varga says:

    Also, I love the cover of your eBook!

  3. Hi Brad.

    Nice write up. I can’t agree more with the treat it like a job. If you want to do it, do it as if there’s no tomorrow.

    That’s how you get things working. Well said!


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