iHobo: No 1 on the street

O.K. … but I’m not exactly sure why anybody would need a tamagochi-hobo.

The iPhone app featuring your own homeless person shot to the top of the iTunes download chart – but it is far from a sick joke

It sounds like a sick joke but in just one week iHobo – an iPhone application that allows you to interact with your very own homeless person – shot to the top of the iTunes download chart. At the end of last week, 210,000 iHobos had been downloaded. But the thinking behind it, the app’s creators claim, is as serious as it is provocative.

“The challenge was how to grab attention without falling back on the traditional route of creating a high-impact, attention-grabbing TV or poster ad,” explains Tom Ewart, an executive creative director at the ad agency Publicis, which came up with the idea for Depaul UK, a youth homelessness charity. “People have grown bored of the shock tactics marketers in the charities sector have come to rely on.”

Step forward, then, iHobo – an otherwise nameless youth who, when you activate the free app, “lives” on your mobile, making a series of direct and increasingly desperate appeals for help, knocking on the screen for attention at any time of day or night.

How he fares is the direct result of the nature and speed of your response to the dilemmas he faces – choices that are based on the experiences of young people Depaul UK has worked with. Look after him and he could just make it through. Make the wrong decisions, however, and his life starts to spiral out of control.

At the end of three days, the “real-time interactive experience” ends with a direct appeal by Depaul UK for each user to make a donation, again via mobile, of either £3, £5 or £10. It is, the charity’s chief executive, Paul Marriott, says, an unapologetic attempt to court a younger generation of supporters. Even so, he admits, iHobo treads a fine line.

“Is this a Tamagotchi-style approach to playing with a homeless person? We’re very clear on that one,” he insists. “While the name is a carefully considered attempt to attract attention, this is not a game and there is no winner in the conventional sense.”

At a time when charities have seen personal donations fall by more than 11% over the past year, iHobo shows the way ahead, both Marriott and Ewart claim. But while this innovative marketing ploy is generating significant word of mouth online, its success won’t ultimately be measured by publicity or even download volumes – but by the uplift in donations it produces.

Meg Carter

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