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Occupy Sandy’s Happy Hackers

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At a recent Google Creative Sandbox event in NYC, I saw a speaker give a talk on “Awesome Hacks”. Low and behold, the icing was put on the HOLY SH*T THAT’S AWESOME cake for those who dreamt up the simple but stellar Amazon.com wedding registry hack that made giving necessary relief items in the hands of volunteers in NYC after Hurricane Sandy… well, simple. But who was behind this awesome, pseudo anonymous effort? Well, one of the clever kids was none other than one of Razorfish’s own… Account Manager, Katherine Dolan.

I got her to give some details on the on what many hail as the hack of the year because I think credit is more than due.

How did you come up with the idea?

On the Saturday after Sandy hit I went to help out in Brooklyn with my boyfriend Alex and our friend John. We knew of a few places in our neighborhood that were accepting volunteers and we ended up at a church in Brooklyn that had donated their space as a relief center. We realized very quickly that there was a really specific list of items that were needed immediately in all affected areas, but the supplies weren’t coming in fast enough. We thought it’d be great if our family/friends around the country could ship things straight to the church since there were a lot of household items needed and people had been calling us asking how to help. The group distributing all supplies from the church (Occupy Sandy) was immediately on board and loved the idea of getting people across the country to join in by sending packages. As the 3 of us walked to the grocery store to buy food supplies for distribution we kept thinking about this idea and how to spread the word about which items were needed. After a few minutes of talking we realized that the wedding registry platform (which already existed) was perfect. We could list the specific items that were needed (batteries, diapers, bleach, construction tools, etc.) and have them shipped directly to the church address just as you would ship a blender or set of china to a couples’ home for their wedding gift. We debated a few sites to use and then realized that Amazon had the most items which we were looking for and we set it up immediately that night.  

How did the idea evolve?

The three of us were all spitballing ideas the whole time and were a team working together every day (and night) on updating the registry with the most needed items, managing questions from people wanting to send things and recording donations/organizing distribution to affected areas. 

Did anyone send non-directory stuff?

Yes, a ton of people heard about our efforts and wanted to send things they owned personally to the church we were using as the distribution hub. They reached out to us through the email account that we’d posted on the registry page for people to send us any questions. We were offered everything from clothes and prepared hot food to dishwashers, old furniture and power tools.  We also had a ton of people email us asking if we could use their services as a handyman, therapist, etc. 

Did you hear from Amazon ever? If no, would you like to?

“Working” with Amazon was the most challenging part of the whole process. I got a contact at Amazon through Razorfish (shout out to Ray Velez!) and we finally received a total number of items sent and total cost of the items; however, we had no real help from Amazon throughout the whole process. We’d ideally love someone to give us the full data on number of donations, number of purchases, but they’ve refused to give us this. (editor’s note: If you are reading this Amazon social team… AHEM.).

When did you know you went “viral” and word was spreading?

We created the registry on Saturday night after Sandy hit and sent it to friends/family and posted it through our individual Facebook and Twitter accounts. By the time we woke up on Sunday morning we saw it had picked up traction on Twitter and then by Monday it had officially blown up. We were being tweeted at by reporters, we saw our registry on Buzzfeed, and we went from about 40 donated items that Saturday night to nearly 10,000 on Monday. There were hundreds of shares on Facebook, over 8,000 tweets, etc.

Do donations continue to arrive even today?

We stopped receiving donations a few weeks ago since the church was shut down as the distribution center. We received $717,956.27 in donations with over 35,960 individual items sent. This cost is not including shipping so I’m assuming the total donations are closer to $1MM but of course I can’t confirm that without Amazon’s help .   (editor’s note again: AHEMMMMM!)

Besides helping so many people in such a clever way, what were the coolest “side effects” of your efforts?

The coolest part of this effort was hearing from people who sent items. We asked people to email us with what they sent (we put this note on the registry info) and we were getting the most amazing notes from people across the country, internationally, etc. who heard about us from a friend or read about our efforts online and wanted to reach out. We had so many people say they wanted to give money but wanted to really send something SPECIFIC to help out and our registry offered that for them. We also had really amazing stories of people who’d been affected by storms in the past and wanted to give back and people who’d never been to NY but couldn’t believe the pictures vs. all the movies they’d seen in the past. We had kids in Brooklyn who held a bake sale at school and donated all profits to buy items from our registry, a church in Massachusetts that recently shut down used all their extra funds on our items, and a guy in New Mexico who personally bought 6 laptops within 30 minutes of them being on the registry so people could start filling out FEMA forms.

 You can read more about the Amazon Wedding Registry Sandy hack here:

 http://mashable.com/2012/11/06/sandy-wedding-registry-amazon/

 Matt Heindl leads our East Coast social media practice based in NYC working with Uniqlo, smart (car), Citi and Mercedes-Benz. He claims to be the only 40-year-old member of Gen Y and firmly believes that all your base are belong to us. Ping him @matt_heindl