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Retail Trends

Keeping the Giving Going

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Hurricane Sandy left behind a wake of destruction from the Caribbean to the Northeastern United States. Claiming at least 125 lives and damaging tens of thousands of U.S. homes, it was one of the worst natural disasters of the past decade.

The American Red Cross has always been one of the first organizations to respond to such disasters, and Sandy’s aftermath was no different. By mid-November, donations to the organization for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts had topped $150 million – and Red played an important role in the fundraising.

While nonprofits may have a greater interest in receiving donations than selling products, many aspects of their operations resemble those of retailers, including their web presence: They need to deliver a customized experience, cater to consumers’ needs and provide a safe and secure platform for transactions. The Red Cross began working with Oracle in 2012, launching its new national site just before Hurricane Sandy. Oracle’s ATG Web Commerce application gave the organization the ability to consolidate its websites and make them more robust and scalable to handle spikes in traffic when disasters strike.

Exponential traffic increase
While the Red Cross engages in fund-raising year-round, during Hurricane Katrina, it raised more than $2.2 billion. For the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti, it raised $302 million and $475 million respectively. In any case, the moment a disaster hits the news, traffic to explodes.

Craig Oldham, American Red Cross vice president of marketing, says because no one can predict when a disaster is going to happen, the organization needs the ability to handle traffic spikes at the drop of a hat.

Indeed, web traffic reached 30 times its normal volume immediately after Hurricane Sandy, says Red Cross vice president of information technology Suzanne Hall. By the time the ensuing telethon kicked into action, there were moments when the organization was processing up to 75,000 donations simultaneously through its website, a rate of up to 22 transactions per second.

“We need that instant scalability because a disaster could happen on Thursday night and by Friday morning our website could have traffic that is 100 times what it normally is,” Oldham says. “We need to be set up so that we can start processing donations immediately.”

Personalized experience
Much like retailers regionalize their product offerings, the American Red Cross customizes the web experience based on visitors’ geographical locations.

“A lot of the times, we’ll geo-target the site so that they can immediately see what might be relevant to them,” says Oldham. These days, that means when a person in New York or New Jersey visits the site, they will immediately be met with information on shelters and assistance for Hurricane Sandy. When someone outside of the Northeast visits the site, she’ll likely be directed to a page requesting a donation.

The website is consistently updated with new information and relevant articles. Oldham says that during the height of a disaster, the Red Cross might be changing personalization rules and content every hour. The homepage features a latest news section along with recent stories that, depending on where the visitor is accessing the site from, highlight how to get help or how the Red Cross is helping others.

The ultimate goal is to solicit a donation from the visitor, and when it comes time for that, Oldham says consumers are looking for the same things that they’d be looking for in a retailer’s website: the confidence that their transaction is going to be handled accurately and securely.

“We have to match the e-commerce experience that they are used to seeing on other major retail sites, so we try to mirror that as closely as we can,” he says. “We want a customized experience.”

After the earthquake in Haiti, the Red Cross unveiled a campaign that allowed cell phone users to make a one-time $10 donation by simply texting “Haiti” to 90999. It was highly successful, helping to raise more than $32 million in the month following the disaster. “It was a quick and easy way for someone to give $10,” Oldham says. “It was also a nice call to action on social media because we saw a lot of referrals coming in through social media. People started retweeting it and donations really came in.”

A scalable solution
The American Red Cross also sells branded merchandise on its website, although Oldham says it’s a very small part of what the organization does. Other retail activities include the sales of commercial grade first aid kits, first aid training devices and supplies, books and DVDs. It also uses a retail-style web platform for purchasing certificates to use for its first aid certification training courses.

“It’s not a big revenue driver,” Oldham says. “Most of it is designed with the intent of supporting the overall mission of the organization.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross was able to consolidate the websites of its hundreds of chapters around the country. Many chapters previously had their own donation websites, some with their own looks and designs that created a hodge-podge network of seemingly unaffiliated websites. Oldham says the organization no longer has to individually monitor 600 sites and can control it all through its Oracle platform.

“We can now do it all through the main national side and create a consistent experience with the security and compliance that we require,” he says.

Hall says the ease of updating compelling content to reinforce the mission combined with the scalability of the platform and the security in transactions has strengthened fundraising operations.

“Oracle has been a great partner for us. We’ve really improved upon the visitor experience and we’ve been able to better handle that scaling of the system” during disasters, she says.