January 9, 2013, 12:35 PM

How the Red Cross stayed online during Hurricane Sandy

A new site handled 500,000 page requests per minute and 22 transactions per second.

Lead Photo

With several hundred web sites for its local chapters migrated to a single e-commerce platform in 2012, the American Red Cross put the new site to the test during Hurricane Sandy last October. “Sandy was our first big crisis on the new site, and the site’s performance exceeded our expectations,” says Craig Oldham, the charity’s vice president of digital strategy.

During an hour-long Sandy fundraising telethon on the NBC TV network, which the Red Cross coordinated with web site and text messaging promotions, the new site handled a record of more than 500,000 page requests per minute, 75,000 concurrent credit card users, and 22 transactions per second—with 100% uptime, Oldham says.

In all, the organization collected $23 million during that telethon, and it brought in a total of $220 million in online and offline fundraising for Sandy victims, he adds. The Red Cross doesn’t break out figures on online and offline donations.

In deploying its new e-commerce site, the Red Cross replaced what Oldham described as a “hodgepodge” of e-commerce technology from several vendors that it had used to operate more than 500 web sites for its local Red Cross chapters. The new single site runs on the ATG Web Commerce On Demand platform from Oracle Corp., which Oracle hosts on the Internet.

The new configuration reduces the Red Cross’s overall e-commerce technology costs while also providing a better mix of local and central control over personalized web content for each local chapter, Oldham says.

The old technology forced web site managers for each local chapter to put up their own local web content based on the current needs of their service areas. But when crises such as hurricanes and tornados hit, the local managers were often unable to manage site content while also providing hands-on assistance to people in need, Oldham says. And it was more likely for local sites to experience outages due to local storms.

The new Oracle site enables local managers to directly manage web content, but during crises the Red Cross’s headquarters in Washington, DC, can take over the management of local content, Oldham says. “We want local people tending to disasters, so if a local chapter has issues with local things on the ground we can take control of the web site in DC,” he says.

Each chapter can arrange to have local site visitors view content related to its area, such as information on how to volunteer during a crisis, where to find shelters, and how to make a financial donation. The Oracle site uses IP address-detection technology to identify a site visitor’s geographic location, then serve up appropriate local content.

“We used Oracle’s ATG Web Commerce personalization and content targeting capabilities during our Sandy response to update and make changes hourly, to keep people informed and make it easier for them to get help and know how to help,” he says. Operating on a single web platform also enabled the Red Cross to personalize content for each chapter at a lower cost than in the past, he adds.

The Red Cross also worked with Empathy Lab, a digital design agency, to design the new site, and it used McFadyen Solutions as a systems integrator to integrate the site with back-end databases and other business operations software.

This year’s Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition 2013, in Chicago, will feature a full-day workshop devoted to how nonprofits use e-commerce. At the conference, Oldham will deliver a featured address entitled “When consumers come, you gotta let ‘em in” that will expand upon how the Red Cross responded digitally to Sandy.

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