Storm Center: By Sharing Personal Stories, Influencers Inspire Charitable Giving

October 2, 2017

J.J. Watt [getty images]
J.J. Watt [getty images]

Hurricane Harvey was coming. Along the Texas coastline and in neighboring cities, people were warned to evacuate their homes.

As the storm approached, it did not slow down. The hurricane cut through Texas into the city of Houston, inflicting damage not seen since Hurricane Katrina in 2004. Superman wasn’t there to save the day, but we found a different kind of hero in humanitarian J.J. Watt.

Like many local residents, the All-Pro defensive end for the Houston Texans was stranded out of town and could not get home. But Watt knew he had to do something right away to make a difference. On Aug. 27, he grabbed his phone, signed onto his social media accounts and challenged people to match his foundation’s gift of $100,000 in aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

In less than 24 hours, that commitment was met and surpassed. Watt raised the appeal to $200,000, then to $500,000 and then to $1 million. The Houston Texans, along with television personality Ellen DeGeneres and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., donated an additional $1 million to the Justin J. Watt Foundation’s Houston flood-relief fund. Jimmy Fallon and “The Tonight Show” donated another $1 million, and in the second week, Charles Butt, CEO of San Antonio-based supermarket chain H-E-B, donated $5 million to the fund.

As of Sept. 18, 500,000-plus people had shared Facebook posts about the fundraising effort, with 209,000 making donations to Watt’s page, raising $37 million.

Personal stories encourage donations

The success of Watt’s fundraising efforts underscores many of the insights from a study recently released by my firm, Allison+Partners. The report, called “How Influence, Empathy and Engagement Have Transformed Cause in the Digital Era,” examines the dynamics between those who follow influencers and the impact those influencers can have on cause-related efforts.

Among the report’s findings is that when looking for an influencer to champion a cause, followers want to feel connected to the issue personally or through a relationship. In fact, when asked what inspires trust in an influencer’s recommendation about a cause, 63 percent cited “if the influencer personally volunteers with the organization.” Sixty-one percent chose “if the influencer shares stories of others who have been helped or impacted by the charity or cause,” and 60 percent selected “if the influencer was personally impacted by the cause.”

Houston is Watt’s hometown and where he plays professional football. His personal connection resonated not only in the Texas city, but with millions of football fans around the world.

The study found that personal stories fuel engagement. When asked about the content they would most likely share about a cause, 64 percent of respondents chose “stories about individuals who have been positively impacted.”

Watt posted regular updates on the amount of money being raised and shared stories about his teammates’ volunteer efforts after Hurricane Harvey. Numerous media outlets interviewed him about the needs of his community. Together, these personal stories created an authentic call to action that continues to inspire people to contribute their time and money to helping victims of the historic storm.

The empathy demonstrated in personal stories helps amplify their influence, the study found. Watt is a football player, but his efforts during Hurricane Harvey were not a one-off self-promotion or a cause-marketing campaign. Instead, it was one man’s way of trying to make a difference in the community where he lives and works.

While his celebrity status and large social media following helped raise awareness and donations, it was his compassion for those affected and his authentic message that moved millions to act. In fundraising efforts, the right influencer doesn’t have to be the most well-known or have the largest number of followers. In fact, the right person is much more likely to be someone like Watt, who has a loyal following and an organic connection to the cause.

Among survey respondents who follow digital influencers, 62 percent said an influencer who personally volunteers for a charitable organization will “extremely/somewhat positively” affect their trust in that cause or organization. An influencer telling stories across multiple online platforms can motivate shares and likes and thus create impact. PR professionals are realizing that when it comes to raising awareness and donations for a cause, traditional media alone can’t match the power of working with the right influencers.

Consumers today are more savvy and selective about the content they read and share. They’re seeking authenticity and connections to causes they care about. Influencers can use their platforms to share moving stories, make personal connections and reach specific audiences.

Scott Pansky

Scott Pansky is co-founder/partner of Allison + Partners in Los Angeles. He also serves as an executive committee member of PRSA’s Entertainment and Sports Professional Interest Section.


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