NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Less than 24 hours after a devastating earthquake struck the tiny Caribbean island of Haiti in early January, a disaster that killed an estimated 230,000 people, the Red Cross initiated a text relief campaign. Wireless users wanting to help were asked to text HAITI to 90999 and a $10 charge would later appear on their phone bills.
Over the next 36 hours, the campaign raised more than $4 million, making it the most successful texting fundraising effort ever. Today, the total raised by texting is more than $32 million, accounting for about 12.5% of the $250 million the organization had raised for Haiti at press time. And the number of texts, currently over 3.1 million, continues to rise, proving just how effective mobile can be as an activation/response tool.
The Red Cross's Haiti fundraising example proved itself to be an exception to many previously held concerns about mobile commerce -- and showed the mobile phone can be one of the most powerful fundraising tools in history.
For the past few years mobile marketing has carried the label of "the next big thing" in marketing platforms, but it has never been able to establish itself as a widely used marketing technique along the lines of e-mail. Perhaps more importantly, mobile marketing has never been fully accepted by skeptical consumers concerned about privacy and protecting their personal financial information.
The Red Cross initiated a mobile fundraising effort during hurricane season in 2008, but was only able to raise $250,000. Jonathan Aiken, director-media relations at American National Red Cross, believes the success of the Haiti campaign far exceeded the results of the 2008 effort for a number of reasons. One was price point -- "it wasn't too high yet made people feel they did something significant." Another was convenience: It didn't require donors to mail a letter, call a toll-free number, wait on line or use their credit cards. But he particularly attributes the campaign's success to the simple fact that people now text more frequently than they talk on the phone.
"The numbers went up because we are at a tipping point in the country where people use texting for something more than just teenage classroom angst," Mr. Aiken said. "Families and businesses use it to communicate with each other and the fact that it's so accessible made it easy for us to tap into that."
The donations started pouring in after First Lady Michelle Obama's PSA was aired, urging people to make donations via text messages. Mr. Aiken said huge spikes in donations started coming in after the National Football League began pushing the relief effort during its playoff games, which included announcements at the stadiums, on air, online and graphics on the screen during the game. During the games, Mr. Aiken said the Red Cross was seeing totals of about $700,000 an hour in donations come in. "And the NFL continued into the second round of the playoffs and even into the Super Bowl," he said. "We were all taken aback by this. We ran out of adjectives to describe its success by day three. At that point we just started using expletives."
David Diggs, VP-wireless internet development for CTIA -- the Wireless Association, said the success of the campaign speaks to the fact that people have grown more comfortable with wireless commerce.
"People are conducting more transactions with their mobile devices in part because text messaging has been prevalent above and beyond what anyone ever expected," Mr. Diggs said. "It's a common, well-understood communications medium. And while not explicit in it, the inherent point that is made is that this was a credible campaign and donors won't start getting spam if they donate."
The texting campaign also allowed the Red Cross to connect with a younger and more tech savvy group of donors, a target base the organization has had a very hard time soliciting donations from.
"We have never been able to tap this group before but were able to do so in part because we went to where they live their lives," he said. "One of the things our CEO [Gail McGovern] has made a point of since coming in has been to tap into the inherent desire of younger people to do good and connect with causes. But it's younger and older people that are now living through that mobile medium in some form or another on a 24/7 basis. And that wasn't the case a year ago."
Mr. Aiken said the Red Cross has long realized that it would need to start communicating with potential donors via non-traditional outlets, a notion confirmed by its use of Twitter back in 2007 during the California wildfires. The group used the channel to constantly update people about the rapidly changing fire lines. "We wanted to see how many people were using it and the response confirmed what we already knew: People were using various mediums to communicate and convey information," Mr. Aiken said. "Texting for donations is an obvious extension of that."
He said 60% of the group's overall donations come via the web. The remaining 40% is divvied up between texting, snail mail, money orders and telephone donations. Mr. Aiken said the organization hasn't figured out what percentage texting makes up of the overall total but he believes that number and its role in the overall mix will continue to grow at a strong pace.
"It's pretty impressive what texting has proven in a hurry and I don't think anyone is going to look back," Mr. Aiken said. "We're going to end up applying this to the next major hurricane that happens because success breeds success and we will find other ways to use this. Texting should be a part of the [marketing] mix from here on in."
What you can learn from the Red Cross' groundbreaking text effort
KEEP IT GOING
Mobile efforts can have a longer shelf life than other more traditional marketing pitches because of their viral and conversational component.
FOLLOW THE CROWDS
Go to where your audience is, and in today's world a big part of the population is mobile.
There's now a significant level of comfort among consumers using mobile devices for financial transactions. The stigma is disappearing.
Look for a price point that both satisfies people and will let them feel good about the donation or purchase price and that they didn't spend or give too much or too little.