One of the most talked about pieces of news to come out of this year’s SXSW was not shiny new tech but the “Homeless Hotspot” campaign by BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH. According to Jenna Wortham writing for The New York Times, BBH outfitted 13 ‘volunteers’ from a homeless shelter with Wi-Fi hotspot devices and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” They were reportedly paid $20/ day (£13) to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference and were allowed to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service. What BBH dubbed a “charitable experiment” has undeniably backfired with industry pundits and media calling the campaign “exploitive” and “tasteless.” Wired magazine even described “Homeless Hotspots” as something which sounds like it is out of a “darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” But is it really all that bad?
BBH has defended its thinking framing the initiative as an attempt to “modernise the Street Newspaper (similar to the UK’s Big Issue) model employed to support the homeless populations”. This has only triggered further criticism. In the past 24 hours, an official response from BBH has been released: “Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villainizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible… we wanted to share a few key facts: We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.” You can read the full comment on BBH’s Homeless Hotspots website.
The campaign for SXSW has failed so spectacularly and so publically. Using Edelman’s TweetLevel tool to evaluate Twitter buzz over the past couple of days, the campaign’s hashtag "#HomelessHotspot" was itself virtually invisible until hybrid media picked up on story on Monday (12/02/2012). The most shared links for the topic, again from TweetLevel, reflect the fierce criticism and debate this campaign has triggered in social and hybrid media since the close of SXSW (interesting to note here that articles by traditional media (BBC, Telegraph, The New York Times) are not fuelling the debate but are only reporting on it.
So why has this initiative failed so spectacularly and so publically? It’s mostly a matter of perception. Countless social programmes promote jobs for the homeless and encourage (and/ or require) the benefactors to participate rather than give hand-outs; the Street Newspaper/ The Big Issue and Habitat for Humanity, for example. But this wasn’t a social programme, let’s be frank here, this was a PR campaign by a marketing agency and the agency failed on one of the most critical principles of any digital marketing campaign; context. As a result, the campaign left users and pundits feeling uncomfortable and with a negative perception of the BBH brand.
The objectives of this campaign were mostly sound and pretty good – connect the visiting SXSW technology community with the local Austin community by highlighting the social problem of an ‘invisible’ homeless population – but the context, and some of the content, was all wrong. BBH lacked a fundamental link connecting the plight of Austin’s homeless with the core audience and objective for the marketing agency. Instead if feeling like they’ve done something for good, users said they felt awkward about the whole thing. That’s not good at all.
You may argue that this was a CSR or even a local community support initiative (BBH does) however contextually BBH – a UK-based agency – did not have a building block of sustained social credibility local market/ community to support such a campaign. We all know that context is king. BBH failed to question; what kind of marketing message are conference goers receptive to in this context? And, is the platform (in this case the homeless participants) contextually relevant to our business and our customers. If this campaign initiative was run by a local charitable organization or local city of Austin chamber of commerce type organization, it’s quite possible we’d be talking about an ingenious campaign designed to promote the local community with the technology elite who descend on Austin once a year. But why an agency? What is the connection?
Surly, as a marketing agency BBH should have known better? Question what you will about the motivations for the campaign, the truth of the matter is that contextually, the language of the campaign was all wrong as well. The mechanics of the campaign gave observers an impression that the initiative lacked purpose and therefore the language used fell flat and communicated exploitation of the homeless participants instead of municipal support. Speaking about the criticism detailed in media reports, journalist and freelance writer Mic Wright said, “It was all in the language. [The homeless participants] WERE the hotspots.”
Behind the scenes and once you visit the BBH website, you might feel otherwise, but as digital marketers we know that the first 5 seconds is what counts. Saneel Radia, the director of innovation at BBH Labs who oversaw the project, told one reporter that the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers. He said, “We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people,” he said. “The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story.” But giving a homeless man a t-shirt that effectively says “I am a homeless hotspot” – where is the tact in that?
If BBH had employed events staff to wander around the show broadcasting wireless hotspots, we would have had no problem with this. It is that fact that they felt the need to make a point with employing the homeless and made it so visible that impacted reception of the campaign. Within the context of SXSW, this simply didn’t gel and the experience left users and pundits feeling uncomfortable. Better, BBH should have employed local community members and activists/ influencers with a message to SXSW attendees to get to know local Austin, the good and the bad. In fact, we’ve used TweetLevel to find a simple list of influencers in the Austin, TX area talking about the homeless. In terms of delivery, a cleanly designed app would have neatly connected SXSW conference goers with stories about their adopted home for the long-weekend. In the right context, with some killer content, this could have been a powerful campaign.