Homeless Hotspots: My Two Cents

Homeless HotspotsThe dust has settled from SXSW Interactive, where the biggest story, arguably was that of the Homeless Hotspots.

I’ve thought long and hard about why this just didn’t sit right with me, and I’ve had some public (and private) Twitter and in-person debates about this. From the start, my argument has not been one that compares the Homeless Hotspot participants to infrastructure. Nor do I believe BBH, the agency that created it, was ill-intended in its efforts.

In fact, I applaud the organization – and Saneel Radia – for launching a disruptive program that raised real dollars for Austin’s homeless population, and generated awareness for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. I do believe, however, that its comparison to the street newspaper model was inaccurate, at best. At worst, it did a disservice to the content and stories contained in the papers themselves. And it just missed the point of street newspapers, perhaps news media in general.

The advertising space is constantly evolving. Recently, there has been a lot of talk of how some advertising agencies are beginning to develop products as a way to educate themselves and clients on emerging technologies and trends, and also as marketing vehicles. If the technology is useful and actually makes people’s lives easier, that’s fantastic, but better, more useful technology is not an answer in itself. Rather, technology is a lens through which a greater variety of stories can be better told.

Two quick examples: the Gutenberg press isn’t important because it was a tool, but that it allowed stories to be created and shared more quickly. The Digital Revolution isn’t revolutionary because of its tools – although the PC and the Internet are surely marvelous – but because its tools allow stories and information to flow almost instantaneously.

In the case of the Homeless Hotspots, the wi-fi provided drove people to a transaction, in most cases. And this should not be overlooked.

When street newspapers are sold, not only are transactions made, but the stories contained therein generate awareness and – more importantly – an action. If one makes a conscious decision to not only support the cause by buying a paper, but takes the time to actually read the stories, they’re ultimately doing more good.

Buy a street newspaper. You might be tempted to give your local vendor money, but not take the paper. This assumes, just as the Homeless Hotspots program did, that the content has little to no value. This assumption is just wrong.  In many cases, the vendors want you to read their papers. By reading them, not only are you committing some time to their cause, but you’re learning about them as well. And once you’re done reading the paper, you’ll likely share it.

Now, I’ve played “Monday Morning Quarterback” on my blog before, but what would I have done differently here? Not much, actually. I’d have worked with the ARCH, and perhaps Good Magazine, to create a Starbucks-like content portal for customers to see upon when they logged in. This way, once the transaction took place, they could dive into – and perhaps share stories of – the Austin homeless experience. That would’ve at least elevated the content, the stories of its participants, to some level of importance.

What do you think? Would you have done anything differently?


  1. Matt Albiniak

    I disagree. If you used the hotspot and didn’t talk to Clarence (or any of the others), I have a hard time believing you’d read a street newspaper. Additionally, I got way more of a personal story from these guys than any Streetwise interaction in Chicago. Homeless hotspots may have had the advantage of new and provocative, though.  

    I’m not sure if it was intentional, but attention on the carrier (Verizon, I think) seemed to be removed. Any more emphasis on the provider would have quickly toed past the line of philanthropy and into exploitive.

  2. DanielHonigman

    Thanks for stopping by, Matt!

    I just know that when I’ve bought a Streetwise, the vendors INSIST I take a paper. Not taking it may imply that they’re good enough for my money, but they’re not good enough for my time, or that their content just isn’t worth reading. And the passalong of Streetwise is through the roof!

    Didn’t even think about the provider. It was definitely a way to promote the new hotspots. Verizon did a good job staying out of the way of this one.

  3. Matt Albiniak

    Absolutely. Vesting in peace has given me a little extra free time 😉

    I didn’t articulate my point with Streetwise well. It’s a very quick transaction. I take the paper, smile, say thanks, and keep moving toward wherever I was headed. I usually stuff it in my pack well intending to read it later, but the day goes on, things happen, and I don’t get back to it.

    With hotspots, I’m forced to physically stop. I may have a breaking #firstworldproblem that I need the hotspot to address, but when I’m done with that, I’m still standing there. It’s hard not to have a conversation, hear their story, and think about it while I walk off to the next destination. 

  4. DanielHonigman

    Interesting. What did you do after the transaction, though? Did you tell others about not the program, but the people and their stories, and how they could help? 
    Not that you needed to, in this case, of course. But it would’ve been more powerful if you were at least empowered to, through the stories themselves.

  5. Gunther Sonnenfeld

    Hmm. Where to begin. Let’s start with the industry.

    You mentioned that the “advertising space is evolving” (which it is), but I’m not so sure that agencies are evolving in a way that allows them to experiment free of judgment, or without an inhibited (or damaging) economic recourse. Sure, most industries have this challenge, but true product companies (per your mention of agencies developing service products) have the flexibility and agility to experiment and build through incremental “failure”. HH was a classic opportunity to do that, and in an industry so focused on execution and output, the reactions overall were disappointing, but also expected.

    Here’s the rub: I’m not sure that BBH could’ve done any better within context — not because it doesn’t have the talent, the vision, or the resources, but because it’s still an agency… Not a product company, not a non-profit org, an NGO, or an innovation hub with experience in social activism. Further, how would other agencies react to them playing an alternative role as an agency? (Clearly, not very well.)

    In order to play this type of role (a very different kind of archetype), I would argue that you need to go through the motions (and machinations) of what that role actually means — socially, economically and operationally. And to create social change, in an activist or an altruistic sense, means you can’t transfer the role to someone else — you have to live it and become it, quite literally. Personally, I don’t have a ton of experience in social activism, but I have worked on pretty large-scale awareness initiatives with global non-profits (NRDC, The Annenberg Foundation), scenarios in which the disconnects between agencies and the orgs were significant because the intentions were totally misaligned (creating a brand and/or a campaign versus a platform that actually creates social change).

    So is the content hub part of the would-be solution for HH (Streetwise et al)? Telling better backstories? Maybe. But again, I don’t think this really boils down to execution, not at this stage at least. And this is what agencies are most uncomfortable with: Not knowing what to assume or predict comes next. 

    So where does the grand idea of HH go? I think it’s just the beginning. BBH has yet to release the data and insights of its findings (which it has mentioned repeatedly), and from there, the sky’s the limit. That is, if the agency can convince itself and its brethren that HH is more than just a clever marketing concept. We’ll see.

  6. DanielHonigman

    I think you raise a few points, but it’s clear some agencies (not all) are taking on different types of projects. (For instance, look at Breakfast’s “Instaprint” project.) Also don’t think BBH’s involvement with the Homeless Hotspot program will end…but it might be the last we hear about it for a little while. I surely think, if anything, that BBH might have cornered itself into extending the program, if not making it bigger. But that’s a conversation for another time. 

    Also don’t think the content is necessarily JUST about the backstories. It’s about the hours and effort spent creating them, and many of the hours were from the homeless participants themselves. 

  7. Gunther Sonnenfeld

    Sure, agencies are taking on different types of projects, but are they taking on different types of roles? Again, I don’t think they are breaking any real precedent here. The Breakfast “Instaprint” project is a cool project, not a bona fide platform for social change (big difference, especially related to HH discussion). Dermalogica’s FITE platform is probably a more relevant example (where the brand empowers entrepreneurs in developing regions). And the fact that BBH might’ve cornered itself into extending the program is precisely my point — they hadn’t thought about the role they were undertaking, nor were they at all prepared for the consequences (which is fine, but alas…)!

    Re: content, not suggesting that it is just about the backstories — I was reacting to what you wrote. I actually think this is much more than just content — it’s utility (scalable use of a platform, in this case an app or site that creates an exchange of services), it’s the stories (what the uses of these services mean in the context of the environments they are used), and it’s the community of users that can grow to scale (partners, local vendors, stakeholders, etc. etc.).

  8. DanielHonigman

    I agree that it’s utility, but my argument is that it came at the cost of what’s at the CORE of the street newspaper model: the content. My argument is similar to that of many street news organizations: that the program missed the point of street newspapers. That said, there’s a way to marry the two – content/context and utility – in a way that makes sense. 

    But in an age where internet access is now considered a basic human right, many people around the world still don’t have it. This could be a stepping stone for BBH (and other digitally minded marketing organizations) to, say, bring more and better internet access to inner-city schools. That’s just one idea that could work in the U.S. 

  9. DanielHonigman

    To elaborate on that point, it’s not just the Internet access, but what’s being done with it. It’s the context. In some cases, providing it to a bunch of conference attendees so they can tweet and check email is fine. And the participants will make some money. That’s great. I’m not sure it’d work in many non-conference settings. Plus many of the “hotspots” might actually be considered businesses as well. (Not sure what the legalities are with that, nor how street newspaper vendors work around it.)

    I also believe “Homeless Hotspots” are just one part of a much, much bigger picture.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>