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CYBERSENSE–Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Little Market Research?

Surfing the Net these days is, if nothing else, an act of market research . Wherever you go, your clicks are collected, categorized and filed away in hopes of using what you read and watch to guess at what you’d want to buy. Even if advertisers don’t know your real name, they can learn enough through this process to target you with pitches for products you’re likely to like. Why should this kind of research be limited to information elite? You hear a lot about the digital divide, but that phrase refers to home computer users. What about underprivileged marketers, the poor saps who lack the world wide wherewithal to compete with the Yahoos and the Amazon.coms? Enter NeedCom, the first Web site to provide critical market research for people who really need it: panhandlers. The site is built around a panhandling effectiveness survey, which invites visitors to rate the technique of six actual New York City beggars. “See, hear and read their panhandling pitches,” it says. “Vote with your virtual wallet and compare your generosity with the Web average.” A tour of the subjects ensues, including portraits, images of their equipment signs, old coffee cups, etc. and recordings of their standard sales pitch. “I’m asking for a little help to get a bed and a meal for the night,” one man slurs. “Anything you can spare would be greatly appreciated.” Another tries a more esoteric approach: “Love each other, love one another. Love each other, love one another. God bless you.” After watching each pitch, you click a button to say whether it would convince you to donate a quarter, 50 cents, 75 cents, $1 or nothing at all. Your responses are then compared to the average of other visitors’ offerings and you get a chance to learn more about the panhandlers. Panhandler picks So what approach works best? The survey’s most popular panhandler was Gary, a disabled veteran whose simple sign and humble appearance extracted an average of 38 cents from each visitor. Robert, the elderly wheelchair-bound man who encourages passersby to “love each other” finished a close second with 37 cents per visitor. As any advertiser will tell you, this kind of data should represent pure gold for the panhandling community. While you can’t actually trade it for a meal or a warm bed, the market knowledge available on NeedCom can help any beggar turn nickels into Susan B. Anthonys. There’s only one problem: Since most panhandlers don’t spend much time online, the research really won’t do them any good. But then, it isn’t really intended for them anyway. No, the beauty of this particular online marketing experiment is that it’s designed to help the guinea pigs that is, us. The site (www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom/home2.html) is meant to encourage us to reevaluate our attitudes toward the people we pass on the street on the way to our well-wired homes. By presenting poverty as a problem that might be solved by better marketing, the site’s creators jar us into actually looking into the minds of those we might otherwise ignore. “To bring panhandlers into the public eye requires a fresher, more comprehensive take on the issues surrounding panhandling,” write the site’s creators, Cathy Davies and Drew Gorry. “It requires a method that uses satire to slip past intellectual defense mechanisms and stereotypes of poverty.” Reaching the hard-hearted After doing the test myself, I was taken aback by my relative stinginess. While the average Web surfer spread out $1.55 among all six beggars, I donated a mere 50 cents. I thought about who got my quarters the panhandlers who didn’t directly ask for money and wondered about my reasoning. Should I have given more? If not, why? Though the site doesn’t actively encourage people to give more money to panhandlers, the mere act of inviting us inside their minds is bound to have that effect. And if it doesn’t if, after visiting NeedCom, you remain as hard-hearted as me at least you’ll be compelled to think about why you’re holding out. It’s a shame more panhandlers can’t see the site for themselves. But they should rest assured that it’s the best marketing campaign money can’t buy. To contact Joe Salkowski, e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.

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