A Homeless Man’s Marketing Strategy Could Grow Your Business

 In marketing

I will never forget this moment. I was leaving a Detroit Tiger’s game with some friends when one of my friends was approached by a homeless man.

When he walked up he did not ask for anything but instead gave my friend a toothpick with a tiny paper American flag attached to it.

My friend was confused. What does she do now? How can she take this gift from this man — who is obviously less fortunate than her — without in some way compensating him?

It was sort of an awkward moment. Ultimately, my friend reached into her purse and gave the man a couple of dollars. He didn’t ask for it. She felt compelled to return the favor.

Prior to the game, we had been approached by several other homeless people who had asked for cash and we had politely refused.

So how did this man overcome our objections to the point that my friend was handing him money — without even asking for it?

What I witnessed, stuck with me. She wasn’t technically manipulated. She wasn’t asked for anything. She was given something. Something that in her mind carried some — even if very little — tangible value to her.

The psychology behind this moment could change your business forever.

The Law of Reciprocity

Have you ever felt compelled to do something for someone who has previously given you a gift, an act of service or even a compliment? Social psychologists have dubbed this feeling The Law of Reciprocity.

The Law of Reciprocity is subconsciously triggered by being given something of value, causing the receiver to feel an emotionally-driven compulsion to “return the favor”.

Studies have shown that often, the receiver of the gift will typically give back in an even greater measure than the original giver.

In the case of the homeless man’s toothpick flag, the item itself can be purchased at Walmart for less than a penny per piece. He gave my friend something that cost about a penny and was given $3 in return. That’s an incredible ROI of 29,900%

Most Businesses are Getting it Wrong

The Man's Toothpick Marketing StrategyHave you ever attended a networking event? Did it feel like you were simply a name and number being added to someones sales hit-list?

I’ve certainly felt that way before, and I am probably even guilty of being “that guy” in times past.

One common experience I’ve observed in these types of gatherings is that many leaders are anxiously ambitious to convert each person they talk to into a paying customer — in most cases offering nothing but their product or service as the value proposition.

This isn’t exactly an effective way of building trust. It’s asking for the money without offering the flag.

How to Leverage the Law of Reciprocity in Your Business

I propose that a more win-win strategy would be for a leader to be interested in learning about a potential customer, discover that customer’s challenge and thoughtfully and genuinely connect them to a solution.

Here is one simple tip on how to get started: Give away everything you know.

If you are in business, you are likely an expert. If you are an expert, you have a wealth of valuable information in your head. Get it out there.

Here are a few ways that I create value for potential customers with my business:

  • This blog
  • YouTube training videos
  • Free eBooks
  • Worksheets
  • A free 30-minute consultation
  • Connecting unqualified leads with other resources
  • Daily content on my social media channels
  • Offering referrals

None of this may lead to an immediate sale, but it certainly lines me up for one in the future.

By adding value first, a displays credibility, showcases genuine care, builds trust and potentially establishes a long-term relationship with the potential customer.

Author Donald Miller says that “business is like dating.” You never ask someone to marry you on the first date. Instead, you continually invest in the relationship, asking for additional dates until trust is developed and a relationship is formed to a place that marriage sounds good to both parties.

Use Responsibly

Disclaimer: I am in no way endorsing the use of this psychological method as a means to manipulate — but rather calling attention to the emotional human response that develops when you create value for others.

It’s the understanding of this response that reinforces the importance of continuously adding value to others both in life and in business.

This theory legitimizes the golden rule and reinforces that putting others first produces healthy win-win scenarios.



Richard EnsleyRichard Ensley is the founder of Detroit-based Priest & King, a brand strategy consultancy focused on clarifying brand messaging to attract customers.

Connect with Richard on LinkedIn for daily insights, tips, and hacks to grow your business.


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