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The Big Issue has joined forces with professional networking site LinkedIn to pilot a scheme that aims to support the magazine’s network of street vendors – many of whom have struggled since losing their income and contact with their community since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a community largely composed of people who are homeless or vulnerably housed, The Big Issue’s nationwide network of vendors was already an at-risk group prior to the pandemic.

However, the severe drop in footfall on British high streets since the start of lockdown has resulted in further precarity. Before Christmas, vendors were worried about the loss of income due to lockdown and over the past 12 months, many have lost contact with regular customers. This has resulted in the loss of livelihoods for many of the community. 

With the launch of its ‘Raising Profiles’ campaign with LinkedIn, The Big Issue hopes to improve the situation for those selling its print editions by helping them reconnect with customers online. 

Through the scheme, vendors can reach out to customers on LinkedIn as well as identifying companies located near their old pitch, letting them know that they can now purchase a copy of The Big Issue digitally.

The vendors’ profiles are also searchable on the platform through The Big Issue company page, so customers interested in supporting the community can track down their local vendors themselves. 

Big Issue vendor Shane
 
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The partnership was conceived and managed by FCB Inferno, which worked pro bono to capture the images and gather quotes from the vendors in order to roll the campaign out across social media and to help vendors utilize LinkedIn’s professional network.

“We really liked the idea of using LinkedIn because it’s a platform that is all about being a professional person,” explains FCB Inferno’s associate creative director Jessica Giles. 

“Some people might not see Big Issue vendors as small business owners, but that’s really what they are. They buy the magazines themselves before selling them on as a form of legitimate income, so the idea of them being on LinkedIn was perfect as it puts them in the mindset and the category of a professional person.”

Enabling vendors to gain new skills 

Associate creative director Austin Hamilton, who also worked on the campaign, concurs that when speaking to participating vendors, many had never considered taking up an online presence for fear of the stigma around their situation. 

“Many of the vendors we spoke to had never had a LinkedIn profile, and when we asked them why they said it was because they didn’t think they would be allowed to.”

The team at FCB Inferno say they hope onboarding Big Issue vendors on to a professional platform like LinkedIn will help promote their work as a legitimate source of income for vulnerable communities. They also see it as a way of enabling vendors to gain new skills that could lead to opportunities for stable, long-term employment in the future.

Big Issue vendor Emma
 
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While still in its early stages, the current pilot has seen The Big Issue identify 10 vendors from around the country to take part in the scheme.

Each vendor has received training from LinkedIn volunteers to get set up on the platform and build their digital skills, and they are being helped to reconnect with loyal customers who they may have previously interacted with daily, but who are now working from home.

Speaking on how the participating vendors were selected, Beth Thomas, the head of partnerships and programs at The Big Issue, tells The Drum: “It was extremely important to us that there was good geographical representation from across the country, so we talked to our fantastic frontline team in each area about who would be keen and have the capacity to take this on.

“Many of our vendors have complex needs and might not be ready to take something like this on, but our ambition is that if this is a positive experience for our vendors – then we can grow it further and onboard more vendors who might benefit.”

Thomas explains that there are a number of factors to consider when encouraging vendors to make the move online as many are in precarious living situations or may struggle with their mental health and wellbeing.

“There were a lot of things to take into account around their digital safety,” she says. “Many vendors might not understand why people might not want to accept their requests, or that people might say unkind things to them online, so that has required education both on our parts and theirs. 

“Other challenges included accessibility, which was certainly helped by the education element from LinkedIn, but there are also issues around vendors accessing the devices in the first place.”

Big Issue vendor Paul
 
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The Big Issue already provides all vendors with a smartphone and a card machine in order to make in-person sales and communicate with each other, and for the purposes of this trial, the 10 participating vendors each received a tablet donated by Dixons Carphone Warehouse to help them access LinkedIn and receive the online training. 

However, all parties conceded that access to digital devices like tablets and laptops would be a factor to consider should the scheme be rolled out on a larger scale. 

Inspiring the community 

Thomas hopes the scheme will allow Big Issue vendors to not only gain new skills but find new opportunities and inspire their wider community in turn. “Vendors really do influence other vendors, so if one person is having a good experience with something, they’ll tell their peers and share their experience, and then other vendors become interested and become their own champions.

“Our vendors are experts on their own experience and can share the journey they have been on so as to influence and inspire others. For our vendors to have a platform to share what they are experiencing with others who might be going through the same thing is really powerful, and also important for people who are very far removed from these sorts of situations.

“Our vendors are a marginalized group of people who are rarely given such a platform to share their stories, and so this has been very empowering for them.”