September 13, 2017

When any disaster strikes – natural or otherwise – the opportunities to donate and support are plentiful. And with Mother Nature currently having a giant hissy fit, the need for help is extreme. So how does one single person (almost single-handedly) create a massive viral campaign to generate millions of dollars in donations? Social media.

Look, I do not want to in any way capitalize on the disasters impacting anyone in the world – as there are many right now. But JJ Watt’s hurricane relief fund has intrigued me since it started to grow and my fascination grew into the need to share some of these important marketing lessons with you. There are components of this campaign that all business owners, and especially other non-profits, can learn from. Oh, and while I am not the celebrity crush type at all, I have had a major crush on JJ Watt for years, so the chance to incorporate a blog post about him was mildly self-serving 

Before I dive into why the campaign has worked so well, let me give you a little background on all of it first.

JJ Watt is a defensive end for the NFL’s Houston Texans. He’s popular on social media and regularly shows the real side of his life. He’s a celebrity name in the NFL and is easily a well-recognized player nationally. Yet he’s down to earth and easy going – all of which his millions of social media fans know. JJ also runs the Justin J. Watt Foundation which is focused mainly on providing assistance to after-school athletic programs. Being based in Houston, when Hurricane Harvey hit, JJ Watt took his star power and put his foundation behind a request to raise $200,000 for hurricane relief and recovery.

On August 26th, 2017 a YouCaring campaign was launched by JJ Watt with a goal to raise $200,000 in donations. He quickly blew past that goal and has increased the goal almost daily. As of September 11th, the campaign is over $32 million dollars from over 200,000 contributors.

So why is it working? Let’s dive in!

First of all, JJ was able to capitalize on the audience he already had. Between all of his social media – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – he has millions upon millions of followers. He has a voice. He has influential power. That is obviously an advantage.

But, many celebrities have more followers than he does. So that alone is not the key to success.

The major reason for the social media impact of this campaign (from JJ’s perspective – we’ll talk about public social media participation shortly) is that JJ has built a trusted a loyal audience. He is authentic and honest with his fans. He’s relatable and compassionate – despite being massive and brutal on the field.

His audience trusts him.

And that right there is the critical component to this campaign success. When JJ put out the request to donate, his fans – many of whom are loyal Texan fans – were happy to donate to cause that they could be passionate about. A cause they could trust. A person they knew would do right by the money they donated. So they were completely comfortable – even eager – to donate and support.

But, this is far from the end of the social media power of this campaign. If this is all it was, JJ would have raised his $200k or a little more and gone quietly about his relief support.

Instead, the transparency through which JJ communicated with his audience, transformed the direction of this campaign.

He has shared regular updates via social media – from short video messages to photos. He has shown himself in the back of trucks loading up goods to be donated. He has shown freight trucks stacked and loaded for deliveries. Not only is he actually present and involved, but he is showing people what is actually happening with their money. There is no question about where the funds are going or how it’s being managed. It’s right out there in the open.

JJ has personally thanked donors. The foundation has ensured that those who donate feel appreciated and valued for their contributions.

It’s this transparency and real-life interaction that has fueled this campaign to success.

But there’s a secondary reason this campaign has gone viral. It’s again thanks to social media, but in a different form.

As this campaign gained steam and got more celebrity support (Jimmy Fallon, Drake, etc.) more people wanted to get in on it. They wanted to be a part of it. It’s kind of a minor case of FOMO (fear of missing out). As the numbers grew and ESPN and even mainstream media talked more about the campaign, everyone wanted to get involved. They wanted to be able to say they were a part of that special occurrence.

Does that sound a little selfish? Sure it does. But welcome to our modern society and the way social media works.

It’s for a similar reason that the ALS ice-bucket challenge was so successful. Everyone wanted to get in on the gimmick. So they did it. And they raised an unprecedented amount of money for the foundation.

People, in general, want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger. That they’ve contributed to something that matters. But, many also want to make sure that everyone they know is aware that they did these things – um, hello humblebrags and pretty much every other gloating social media post ALL of us have ever posted.

So, when someone can say they donated to the JJ Watt fund, even if only for $10, they get to brag that they were a part of this whole thing. They tell their friends and post on social media. Which ups the ante of competition and their friends all join in. It’s a ripple effect that creates exponential reach and impact.


And all of this, combined with JJ’s social media influence and transparency, are why this campaign have been so hugely successful.

What does this mean for you as a business? What can you learn from this?

  • Be real. Be authentic. Be a real dang person or group of people behind your brand. That’s what gets people to act.
  • Be transparent. Good, bad, or ugly, letting people know what you’re doing and how you do it will build trust in ways you could never buy.
  • Be passionate. You don’t have to be passionate about everything (that’s impossible) but be passionate about a couple things and your audience/customers will rally behind you. And, yes, you can be passionate about your own product or service 
  • Social media takes times. JJ couldn’t have pulled this off if he had just started Tweeting a week before launching this campaign. He built this audience over years of consistency. Understand that you need to cultivate your audience just as much, if not more.
  • Know how your audience interacts on social media. You can’t create virality or even long term success if you can’t work with what your audience wants. You have to fit into their behaviors and interactions if you want to see success.
Did you find this helpful? Please share:
  1. The winning ingredient of authenticity.
    He succeeded what many fail to achieve: translate social media popularity and big metrics into tangible action.

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