Creating A Relief Campaign On The Fly: Lessons From SXSW

When Japan was hit with disaster, bloggers at SXSW joined social media forces to help and raised more money than ever imagined.
Writer, Wise Bread, Wise Bread
May 23, 2011

Imagine that you’re at a big conference—South by Southwest to be precise—and a major natural disaster strikes somewhere in the world, like the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March. What do you do? Anything?

In the case of certain bloggers who were attending SXSW, the next step was to create a campaign to encourage attendees to donate to the Red Cross. The first push, lead by Leigh Durst and Deb Ng, focused on a Twitter hashtag, #SXSWcares, telling people how to text donations to the Red Cross.

The Twitter hashtag was just the start. Soon the organizers created flyers, set up a website, landed interviews, and eventually raised more than $120,000. Not bad for conference attendees making it up as they went.

Physical access makes a difference

While there have been similar, spontaneous campaigns for charitable causes, the fact that thousands of people were in one place helped move #SXSWcares to a new level. Within a matter of hours, Rob Wu, founder of CauseVox, had built a website for the campaign using the platform he had developed for fundraising, and Hugh MacLeod, the artist behind Gaping Void, created a logo. The elements of the #SXSWcares campaign came together in a way that many marketers only hope their projects would.

Durst notes, “I believe physical access was a critical component of the campaigns success, and the hub of interaction at the Samsung Blogger lounge served as a key area for meetings and interaction. We may have facilitated donations and spread the word online—but the face-to-face meetings we had with people impacted by the crisis, other fundraisers, bloggers, authors, thought leaders, business executives and even the media—created momentum that pushed the online effort further than it would have gone on its own, in my opinion.”

It didn’t hurt that SXSW plays host to tens of thousands of attendees over the course of the three sections of the festival. Around twenty thousand people were in attendance during the interactive portion, when #SXSWcares began.

The work continues after you go home

Durst describes the effort she and other organizers of #SXSWcares made to make sure that, as they left Austin, things kept going. “Well, Rob had to leave to attend the Non-Profits in Technology conference in DC. I actually extended my stay in Austin to help extend to the Music Track, and I left Austin the day before SXSW officially ended. Fortunately, we were able to leave Denice Crowell in charge of outreach at the large venue concert, while Rob collaborated to stream the Hanson 12 hour music telethon on our site. Because we had already been tightly connected with SXSW leadership as well as the City of Austin, we had things covered. Rob and I were actively engaged remotely. That's sort of the beauty of the cloud—you can manage something like this anywhere!”

Follow-up media can provide additional reach for such efforts, beyond the attendees of a given event—or the reach of the people originally involved. “Follow up media has helped keep the spotlight on the effort,” says Durst. “However, we've shifted gears a bit now, as SXSW is over, and the online donations have wound down to a trickle. We re-streamed the Hanson Music telethon several times, and Hanson's album release has placed additional focus on the effort.”

Ready for the next campaign

For ad hoc campaigns created on the fly, whether in response to disasters or in support of more positive projects, Durst notes several factors critical to success.

  • Move quickly. Durst points out that people are often looking for ways to support a cause, but only in the short period of time after they actually hear about it. You need to be up and operational as fast as possible, even if that means a less-than-pretty presentation.
  • Keep it simple. If you’ve got to get moving quickly, don’t try to tack on every bell and whistle. The #SXSWcares organizers considered creating t-shirts—but the pricing and timeline just weren’t practical.
  • Connect directly with the cause. Especially if you’re working with a nonprofit, get in touch with their representatives—at the very least, they may be able to help you get set up faster, as well as provide your efforts with legitimacy.

It is possible to pull together an effective campaign—especially to raise money for a cause—in a matter of hours. The organizers behind #SXSWcares showed that even if you start with a simple conversation on Twitter, you can organize an effort that inspires thousands of people to donate and gives them a simple way to do so. #SXSWcares' organizers moved quickly, took advantage their location and their connections, and ultimately raised far, far more than their initial goal of $10,000 for the Red Cross’ relief efforts.