Going Out on a Limb for What You Believe In

What We Learned From Putting a Homeless Man on a Billboard

By Published on .

Kate Donaho
Kate Donaho
A month ago, we put a homeless person on a billboard. Not a striking photograph of a homeless person or a clever headline about homelessness, but an actual homeless man named Danny Silver. This was part of a campaign to raise money and awareness for our client, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an Austin, Texas-based mission that serves food and clothing to the homeless and working poor.

The result: Within 48 hours, we raised enough money to get Danny and his wheelchair-bound wife off the streets and into a home, as well as funds for MLF and national awareness of the issue. We also learned a few priceless lessons about the intersection of mobile and social media, traditional advertising and effective PR.

How it happened
The project started when our agency, T3, helped to set up a text-message donation platform for MLF. After that, several of us became volunteers, going out on monthly catering truck runs to deliver food. We knew we could do more, so we signed on as MLF's pro-bono agency.

From our perspective, the biggest challenge to getting someone to help a homeless person was first getting them to see a homeless person. We wanted to raise the cloak of invisibility that makes people look away rather than help. Our core campaign idea was born: "I Am Here."

Our goal was to create a campaign that would not only launch the text-to-give option but also raise awareness about the organization's mission. We knew "I Am Here" would have creative components across all media. But we needed to kick it off with something that would say "I am here" in a way that no one could ignore. Something like putting a homeless guy up on a billboard. We said that enough times that it started to sound like a legitimate idea. We decided to keep pursuing it until someone said no. Nobody did.

And that's how on April 27 and 28, Danny, along with MLF founder Alan Graham, wound up at the top of a billboard on I-35.

What we learned:

  • Assume it can be done. How many ideas have been killed by comments like, "We could never pull that off" or "There's no way the client will approve it" before they ever went anywhere? Some great ones, sadly. Our idea got off the ground, literally, because we were optimistic, persistent and lucky enough to have a courageous client such as Alan at MLF and a bold partner in Reagan Outdoor, which donated the billboard space. (A little bravado, some harness rope and a few legal waivers didn't hurt, either.)
  • Find a story to tell. The billboard event provided a platform to tell a story: the chronicle of Danny and his wife Maggie's lives and the new home and beginning that were imminent. As that story unfolded, people tuned in around Austin and across the country. In fact, one of the people watching was Danny's daughter, whom he hadn't seen in 10 years. She reached out to Alan after seeing the news coverage, and he flew her to Austin to reunite with Danny on move-in day, creating quite a happy ending.

  • All channels work harder together. It was the combination of media that made our campaign a success: the live event featured in a traditional medium, with the immediacy of a mobile call to action, supported by video storytelling, distributed via social media and good old-fashioned public relations. In 48 hours, we raised the $12,000 we needed through texting. In eight days, we got more than 1.3 million impressions on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Buzz doesn't always translate to dollars. People were going crazy tweeting and retweeting, spreading the word to help Danny, but of those 20,000 people, less than 2% texted donations. We were shocked: People were impassioned, but they weren't doing what we needed them to do. It turns out that most people wanted to donate online, because that's where they were. The online donations were significant, and they continue to roll in.

  • PR is a gamble, but it can pay off big. We had no media budget, so we had to rely on public relations to give us the reach we wanted. Essentially, we had to bet on the story we were telling, and our crafty PR team got on the phone telling it. We got lucky, with coverage everywhere from CNN to the Huffington Post. To date, "I Am Here" has been covered on 230 news outlets in 30 markets, and the media value of the news coverage is more than $500,000.

  • Have the social conversations—even the fierce ones. We knew we'd stir controversy and, while the vast majority of feedback was positive, we had to welcome the negative as well. Alan, already an avid user of social media, spent most of his time that week, when not twittering or live-streaming from the billboard, answering tough questions and responding to concerns. His willingness to have an authentic, passionate dialogue greatly advanced his cause.

  • The soft metrics matter. Alan says that his mission is to change the world one human at a time. By extension, the goal of "I Am Here" was to change one heart at a time. The stories continue to trickle in: Just the other day a friend of mine met a Canadian guy in a bar in California. When the friend said he was from Austin, the Canadian said, "Huh. Is that homeless guy still up on a billboard?" My friend said no, the guy was down now, but explained that he knew the organization and the people who worked on the campaign. The man responded, "Well, tell them they did good."

Kate Donaho is group creative director at T3, an agency with offices in Austin, New York and San Francisco.
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