What Disaster Relief Can Teach Us About Digital Campaigns

There’s an old saying that has become almost cliche these days:

Necessity is the mother of invention.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in October, 2012 I was winding down my work with the Occupy movement and looking ahead towards digital campaigning for politicos and advocacy groups. All of a sudden, thousands were without power, gas and access to food. And I had to repurpose my skills towards another end: disaster relief and volunteer recruitment.


One of many digital banners that emerged to promote volunteerism and raise morale during Hurricane Sandy in NYC.



In a matter of hours, the Occupy Sandy movement was born. Ultimately, my team and I would recruit over 70,000 volunteers in 2 weeks to distribute millions of dollars worth of food, clothing, bedding, and other essentials to thousands of citizens. Said the NY Times of our endeavor: Occupy Wall Street is capable of summoning an army with the posting of a tweet. It was only when disaster struck that we learned the real value of our networks, which leads me to the first lesson:

1. Networks of real people are at the core of digital campaigns.

When we bury ourselves in our computer screens tweeting, facebook’ing and instagram’ing, we often forget that behind every digital account on the internet is (hopefully) a real person. Our relationships online are ideally meant to emulate and enrich our offline ones. When Mark Zuckerberg was asked why he created Facebook, he responded:

When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better.

In any digital campaign – whether it’s marketing a new product, creating brand awareness, building a social movement or getting someone elected – we must keep the focus on real people. Which brings me to the next principle:

2. A video of your company or organization helping one person in a deep way is better than superficially helping 100 people.

Before we could recruit 70,000 volunteers to Sandy, we had to get video cameras into the hardest-hit neighborhoods and show people what was really happening, and how we were helping on a block-by-block level. This served to recruit people and organizations to our cause, but also as a template for other groups to emulate our work: in the language of programmers, ‘fork our solution’ and make your own!

The Salvation Army might have as its motto “Doing the Most Good”, but just google “salvation army commercial” and you’ll realize that nearly every marketing campaign they’ve run focuses on their work with one person or family. That’s because the purpose of marketing is not just to trumpet one’s own successes, but to inspire viewers to take action with you. When people see you creating positive experiences, they want to be involved. When the people you’re helping look like them or share their struggles, they feel an attraction to you and your work. They want to join in!

3. Meet people where they are. 

I once taught high school in the housing projects of Brooklyn, and all of my students were former delinquents – they had all been expelled or had dropped out of traditional public schools. If you happened to see a young, enthusiastic white man in a tie walking through the projects those days, it was likely me. I knew that my students distrusted the educational system, so I had to come to them. You have to meet people where they are.

When it comes to digital marketing, so many people think that posting a tweet puts it in front of the eyeballs of the masses. They couldn’t be more wrong: on most social networks, only a small fraction of your “followers” actually see your content under most circumstances. The internet is powerful because it allows us to virtually congregate in places with people of like interest even though we are geographically disjointed, but that doesn’t mean people will just come to you. You’ve got to find out where they “live” on the web. Some examples:

  • Trying to build a startup social network by recruiting teenagers? Learn about the artists they like and meet them in those Facebook fan groups. (These might be closed groups you have to register to get into.)
  • Trying to find supporters of a particular legislation to recruit to a political campaign? Find the hashtags of conferences and advocacy campaigns that support that legislation, and use those hashtags on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.
  •  Trying to grow awareness about your new restaurant and get customers? Find out who the influential local food bloggers are, and reach out to them. Or jump right to the grassroots by getting on Twitter and asking your followers to recommend food specials for that night. Who wouldn’t bring a date to a restaurant that agreed to take their special order in advance by tweet?

Meeting people where they are is important, but to do that you’ve got to stay nimble and flexible. People’s interests and desires change rapidly, and are influenced by the way in which you present your content. Keep your core message simple and elegant, but implement it in a thousand different iterations that display your ingenuity and adaptability:

4) Stay nimble and flexible by relinquishing some control over your brand.

One of the major tidal shifts in the media landscape is away from institutional, hierarchical one-to-many broadcasting towards peer-to-peer and distributed broadcasting. In other words, we are getting ‘the news’ less and less from one authoritative source and more from our friends and trusted influencers. This is both diversifying and democratizing the media. Diversifying the media means that people are exposed to many different, pluralistic inputs in their informational lives. The echo chamber doesn’t work exactly because we are aware that it is there: we sense that our Facebook timelines aren’t giving us the full picture, so we search out alternative sources. Democratizing the media means that individuals have much more influence on trends in media than they used to: a single bad Yelp comment from a dissatisfied customer can trigger a PR disaster for a company (or a positive one a field day of new business!…) If we try to keep tight control over our brand we end up losing that interactivity and engagement that defines good digital marketing/campaigning.

What does all this mean for you? Cultivate a team of volunteer “viral voices” for your brand/campaign that help you distribute your content across the internet. You can’t exactly dictate to them what to say and do like your marketing team, but you can suggest they share things or post positive comments/tweets/etc. endorsing your product/service/cause. These “viral voices” should be a range of different influencers with varying size followings: remember, a single positive Facebook post from a well-connected mini-celebrity (10,000 followers or less) can be more meaningful than one from a mega-celebrity who has little sway over your target audience. Staying nimble will help you see better who are the major influencers over your target audience – don’t assume they are all famous!

And keep up the good work.

Justin Wedes is the Founder and CEO of The Liberati Group, a PR firm for the underdogs. Each week, look for a post like this with ideas and strategies for digital campaigning and marketing!