How Hitchhiking Made Me A Better Marketer

The van driver rolled down his window and called me over. "I’m sorry I didn’t pick you up earlier—the ladies in the back wouldn’t let me."

"That’s OK. I wouldn’t pick me up, either." The ladies smiling, grateful to be let off the hook.

"No, I hate to pass by without helping, since I did so much hiking in my day."

Here in South Africa, my family and I are getting used to relying on the kindness of strangers. With no car (yet), no contacts, and frequently no clue, we’ve gone from reluctantly accepting assistance to actively sticking our thumbs out, soliciting it.

Particularly when it comes to transportation. We’re about two miles up a mountain from the nearest mini-mart, and three-hour shopping trips for a cartoon of eggs, two onions, and a Cadbury Turkish Delight are getting old. 

So I’ve taken to thumbing it as soon as I hear the infrequent rumble of a vehicle engine behind me. And in so doing, I’ve discovered a few things about human nature that make me a smarter marketer.

1. When I hitchhike with a child, I have better luck.

When I’m by myself, my conversion rate of vehicles to rides is quite dismal. One out of ten, or worse. And the drivers stoically reject eye contact, as if I were some kind of psycho with evil intent and the power to mesmerize them with my gaze.

When I have a child in tow, the odds change dramatically. About 50% of drivers stop, and the ones who don’t arrange their faces and gesture sympathetically about not having enough space or time or whatever it is they’re trying to communicate. What they’re really communicating is, "I’d stop if I could."

So what’s going on? Why does a child increase my odds so dramatically?

I don’t think it’s pity. Not in a region afflicted by poverty and malnutrition and domestic violence. My well-fed, well-dressed kids are in no way Save the Children poster material compared to the dozens of children who walk the hill every day in shoes that have been handed down since the 1970s.

Rather, the presence of a child makes me safer to pick up. I’m a father; therefore I’m probably not an axe murderer. I’m a caring, affectionate father; even better. When we hear the engine approaching, we hold hands, smile, and assume thumbs-out position. Who can resist John-Boy and John Senior needing a lift to pick up Grandma Esther’s heart medicine?

The marketing message is sobering: when I’m first trying to attract prospects, who am I on the inside is far less relevant than who my prospect THINKS I am.

I’m the same person, whether I’m walking solo or dragging a kid who’d rather wait at home. Two days ago, in fact, I went to the store for tummy medicine for my eldest, who was suffering from what she likes to tell people was amoebic dysentery (partly because it sounds dramatic, and partly because it doesn’t contain the word "diarrhea"). I was tired, and busy, and yet I braved the elements in search of over the counter bismuth subsalicylate. 

Couldn’t the busy motorists sense that I was on a mission of mercy? Apparently not. To get a ride on that day, I would have needed to drag my poor daughter out of her sickbed to stand with me on the side of the road, so she could demonstrate my virtue and harmlessness.

So what does this mean for marketers? 

Mainly, accept that most prospects already don’t trust you. If you’re on the web, you look just like all the online businesses that have scammed or disappointed them in the past, or that they’ve heard stories about, or that they’ve made up stories about.

So include as many trust elements as you can on your landing pages. These include: photos of you and your staff, real phone number and physical address, photo of your location, trust badges like BBB, eTrust, and VeriSign, and logos of already trusted organizations like UPS, Visa, and FedEx.

Also, anticipate and acknowledge visitor concerns by answering them up front. "Yes, there are a lot of fly by night online marketing ‘gurus’ out there, but you can trust my advice since I was selected by Wiley, Inc. to write Google AdWords For Dummies. Also, my client list includes…"

Once they get to know, like and trust you, none of that will matter anymore. Your skills, your ethics, your heart will trump all the logos and badges and honors and awards and certifications you may have accrued. But in order to get to that point, bring a kid with you.

2. The driver's not the only one who needs to agree to stop and pick me up.

The passengers can veto the driver's decision. In the case of the van full of ladies, they did. Totally understandable, right? I’m not exactly a hulk, but I am five foot ten (on bad hair days) and I can do three consecutive pushups. What hope would seven female middle-aged tourists from Johannesburg have against me?

Very often, your prospect is not the final or only decision maker. In B2B sales, the searcher generally presents several options to the decision makers. But even for consumer sales, you need to consider the priorities, prejudices and opinions of the passengers.

Spend time discovering the stakeholder constellations for your typical prospects. Do they have to run it by their spouses? Must 20-somethings get financial buy-in from their parents? Do your prospects care about looking stupid in front of their friends?

Develop marketing content that "sells through" as well as "sells to" your prospect to the other passengers in their decision vehicle.

3. The drivers who stop for me typically have done a lot of hitchhiking in their time.

This one is really interesting to me, because it begs the question, "So, what are you going to do once you get a car?"

See, I hardly ever pick up hitchhikers. I just drive right by them, avoiding eye contact. After all, who knows what sort of crazy criminals they might be?

But now I’m on the other side. I see the rigid, fearful faces of the people who don’t stop. I see the warm, smiling faces of the ones who brake just ahead and motion out of the window for me to hop in. It’s clear which one I want to be. 

So my behavior is changing based on empathy. Based on being in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes.

If you want to market effectively, this sort of perceptual shapeshifting is required. Spend some time searching as if you were your own prospect. Think about what’s at stake. What you wouldn’t know. What would scare you. What you’d want more than anything else. What promise you’d most like to hear and believe.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shopping. We’re out of bread, and the store’s far away. Wish me luck...

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[Image: Flickr user gustafsson-e]

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  • Brien Shanahan

    Howie, I really enjoyed this article. Not only did you give us a glimpse into your personal life and adventures, but you tied it perfectly into sales and marketing. I could relate to each of your conclusions in my own sales efforts, especially about gaining trust of all the decision makers. You may have an ally in a potential prospect, but until you gain the trust of if his/her partner or executive board you often won't get the sale.

  • Ron Hartman

    Marketing 101: Tell A Story! Thanks for the lesson. Much more memorable than just telling us."You need more trust elements in your marketing". Point taken.

  • Katherine Andes

    Interesting post, Howie. I'm happy you're getting some rides, but I think you need to get a car. Hitchhiking is too dangerous! With respect to your examples, my SEO web content coach taught me to tell my clients about trust seals and I do think they are important. Sometimes my "small" clients don't want to fork out the money to join the BBB, but I think it's well worth the price. Maybe I'll use your example to try and persuade them. As a writer, I also believe that writing "real" content is also helpful in helping visitors trust your product. And, of course, testimonials help convey trust as well ... that is  testimonials from real people, that a visitor could call up and talk to if they so desired. Trust is huge! Thanks for the reminder.

  • Howie Jacobson

    Actually, hitchhiking feels quite safe over here - a lot safer than me on the wrong side of the road driving manual transmission!

    Good luck getting your smaller clients to fork out the dough for trust seals. They can always try it for a month and run a split test to see if it's worth it.

  • Pete

    Great article, Howie! I especially liked the example you gave of ways to include trust elements into your landing pages. Something I had never thought about before, but a really vital piece of information. I wonder if you might also be able to give an example of how to do the "sell-thru", the reach to the stakeholders behind the scenes? I assume this may require some elements in addition to those you mention in the preceding "trust elements" example.

  • Howie Jacobson

    Two things come to mind to assist with sell-through:

    1. Recognize that you aren't going to close the sale to the one visitor you're talking to first. Don't pressure them to make decisions they don't feel comfortable making. 

    2. Give them tools with which to convince the other stakeholders, and suggest how they use them. A great resource here is the classic Miller Heiman Strategic Selling methodology, which identifies large account stakeholders by function: gate keeper, decision maker, advocate, etc. 

    Your goal is to turn your visitor into an advocate and then give them the resources they need to convince the money people, the specs people, and the "how is this going to affect my career?" people.

    Hope that helps...

  • Patty Rutkowski

    Howie, What a great comparison...and a true message...Be Real, Do it Right, Think more about your audience than yourself.  Thanks for sharing, Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Keith Buchanan


    Very good article in the area of trust.  The one area with everything falling apart in the world people are seeking.  You said it perfectly.  One quick question?  Do you live in South Africa now or was this many years ago. 


  • Howie Jacobson

    Keith, I'm living in South Africa at the moment, in the Drakensberg region of KZN. You familiar with the area?

  • Jennifer Merritt

    I have been in the circumstance that requires hitchhiking when with children due to a car breakdown.  Great to take a topic that is relate-able and remind us "the marketing expert" that trust is ALWAYS important.
    In my circumstance, we were offered a ride by a fellow "dad" within a short time and taken to safety.  Just as there is an aspect of risk in hitchhiking, there must also be an element of trust available to develop a partnership with the reader. 

  • Howie Jacobson

    Yes, and sometimes in life and in marketing, the best first move is to acknowledge the risk and give the other person an "out."

    I can tell when I've attracted a new client who has more doubts than confidence - it rarely ends well.

  • Nancy Rae Evans

    Another great reminder that we must focus on what the client/prospect wants and needs rather than the product or service we think they want.  I call it "problem-speak" vs. "solution-speak."  They can't hear me  when I use "solution-speak."  It's a foreign language to them.  And since I don't have kids, I guess revealing my own past financial blunders could be a path to building trust. 

  • Hugh Cullman

    Mr Analogy comes through again.  Most people seem to find comparisons that are tortured, at best.  This one, like many of the others you have shared has more insights than issues, which is the sign of a good one.  Now....where can I find a daughter to put on my home page????

  • Howie Jacobson

    Calling me "Mr Analogy" is like... is like... oh, damn! I got nothing...

  • Neil keleher

    I love a more "personal" touch on my website. Now I have the excuse I need to add pictures of me and my daughter.

    On a good hair day does your hair go up or down? 

  • Howie Jacobson

    These days, a good hair day is one where I remember where I left my brush.

  • Mick Gavin

    Great Article - excellently combines iinteresting real world experiences with some very useful marketing messages

  • Tara Jacobsen

    I LOVE when real life, basic information gets through where marketing mumbo jumbo fails! What a great analogy to how we are seen on the internet. Saw a GREAT statistic the other day that 30-some percent of trust comes from websites (2nd only to a referral from a friend). I think the pendulum is swinging back around and focusing on making your site a friendly, safe place will do nothing but help! 

  • Dan Waggoner

    Great article Howie. It's more than just marketing; it's life. Thanks for sharing.

  • Don Peterson

    What a great little article.  I'm going to improve my "Welcome page" today.  This is one article that really makes you want to take action.   don peterson