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Effective Use of Social Media Requires Tapping Emotions

Effective Use of Social Media Requires Tapping Emotions

by Margaret Steen

Authors Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith explain how to harness the power of social media to achieve social change in their book ‘The Dragonfly Effect’.Dragonfly Effect book cover

A social media campaign that goes viral, grabbing the attention of thousands or even millions of people at a very low cost, is the dream of many social entrepreneurs. But clearly not every Facebook page, website, or tweet succeeds in this way.

“You can’t use social media effectively unless you know how to capture people’s emotions,” said Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the Graduate School of Business. “People only advance the message about something they care about.”

Aaker studies what motivates people and how to engage their emotions. She and her husband, start-up advisor and tech marketer Andy Smith, have put this research to work in a book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change.

The book, was inspired by the story of Sameer Bhatia, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was diagnosed with Leukaemia at age 31. He needed a bone marrow transplant but couldn’t find a match because so few potential donors were South Asian. (A match is most likely when the donor and patient are of the same ethnicity.) His friends used social media to ask members of the tight-knit South Asian community to register as potential donors.

After 11 weeks of efforts that included 480 bone marrow drives and 150,000 visitors to websites about Bhatia and Vinay Chakravarthy, another member of the South Asian community battling the illness, more than 24,000 possible donors registered. One was a perfect match for Bhatia.

Unfortunately, neither Bhatia nor Chakravarthy beat Leukaemia. However, the newly registered donors also helped others:

In 2008, 266 donors registered through the efforts of these men’s friends were matched to patients.

This drive is a prime example of a successful social media campaign.

The title of ‘The Dragonfly Effect’ comes from the fact that the dragonfly is the only insect that can fly in any direction when its four wings are working together.

The dragonfly itself is a symbol of happiness, new beginnings, or change in some cultures. Drawing on research on happiness and ripple effects from small acts that create big changes, the book provides a roadmap to show readers how to harness social media for impact. There are four “wings” of the Dragonfly Effect — focus, grab attention, engage, and take action — which guide readers toward the best strategy.

First Wing: Focus

Concentrate on a single clear outcome rather than “thinking big.” The idea is to concentrate your resources on this. The book outlines several steps for doing this: Set a goal, break it into smaller sub-goals, decide how to measure success, and create a concrete, specific action plan you can revisit and use as a management guideline.

Second Wing: Grab Attention

Once you know what you want to do, you need to get your audience’s attention. Key tips: Be original, keep it simple, make it grounded, and use visual imagery.

Third Wing: Engage

To “tee up” your audience to take action, get them emotionally involved in your cause. To do this, you need to understand what engages people. Stories and personal engagement are key. You should tell your story using a variety of media. For example, some people prefer Facebook to Twitter or email to blogs. Use these online connections to engage people in offline actions.

Fourth Wing: Take Action

Once you know what you want to accomplish and have engaged your audience, it’s time to get your audience to act in a way that makes your cause become its cause, usually by asking people to volunteer time, money, or both. It’s critical, particularly early on, that people get positive reinforcement; you need to give your audience feedback in real time reflecting its contribution.


“Research we’ve done suggests that you need to have all four of these things working in concert for maximum impact,” Smith said.

Using principles of design thinking, Aaker and Smith developed each wing , which Aaker describes as “a way of developing solutions by deeply understanding customers, their environment, and the problem they have first. It’s surprisingly inconsistent with the way many traditional businesses work.”

In other words, it’s a way to build the right products, not just a way of making products look nice.

“Time and again, initiatives falter because they’re developed with the brand, organization, or cause — rather than individuals’ needs — foremost in mind,” Smith said. “Design thinking encourages a human-centric orientation, hypothesis testing, and frequent, rapid prototyping.”

Rapid prototyping is suited to social media. Traditional marketing develops a campaign based on insider preferences, capturing customer reactions weeks or months after its release for insight on how well it worked, said Smith, a principal of Vonavona Ventures, where he advises technical and social enterprises. He is a veteran of many start-ups, a former executive at Dolby Labs and Intel, and a guest lecturer at the GSB.

“There’s a real bias toward action,” Aaker said.

Two areas of Aaker’s research also informed the book.

At the core of The Dragonfly Effect is the concept that a sufficiently passionate individual can create an impact on the world that stretches not only far beyond themselves and the people they know, but also across time.

We refer to these as Ripple Effects [“the simple idea that small acts can create big change,”].

In the case of a social media campaign, this means that something as small as one person’s Facebook post could, if done correctly, start a movement. The campaign to enlist bone marrow donors to save Bhatia is an example of this.

At Jennifer’s recent talk before Stanford Professional Women, she illustrates the Ripple Effect by telling the story that inspired our book.

“Research shows that ripple effects result from small actions that have a positive, significant impact on others and over time,” she said. “When the action at the epicenter of the ripple effect is based on deep meaning, a multiplier effect can also occur, yielding additional value. Time can psychologically expand when people are doing something they love and the process of doing it makes them happy.”

A related idea is emotional contagion, the tendency to feel and be influenced by others’ emotions. It explains why emotional appeals can lead to audience engagement.

“Researchers reveal that happiness really is contagious: People who are happy [or become happy] significantly boost the chances that their friends will become happy,” Aaker said. Furthermore, this effect can span two more degrees of separation, “improving the mood of that person’s husband, wife, brother, sister, friend, and even friend’s friends. Further, these contagious effects have a lasting impact.”

The concept of emotional contagion also underscores the importance of using social network campaigns for social good, which is “most often resonant with happiness and meaning,” Aaker said.

Campaigning for social good sounds like the goal of nonprofits, but Smith says the book has a decidedly broader audience. For-profit companies are increasingly using these strategies to engage employees and customers, either within the framework of a corporate foundation or corporate social responsibility office, or as a way to increase the appeal of their product by tying it to a social good. (A for-profit company could use some of the strategies simply to sell its products, though the campaign would likely lack the emotional connection that comes from helping a Leukaemia patient.)

“We define social good broadly, as something where significant benefit extends beyond you or the organization,” Smith said. “The more relevant the good is to what you do, the more customers are likely to reward you for doing it, through product choice or loyalty.” For example, a case study of Starbucks shows how the company reinvigorated its brand by becoming the world’s largest buyer of “fair-trade-certified” coffee — using a blog and Twitter to connect with its customers.

For many for-profit companies, the idea of doing social good is not so-called “green-washing” but “deeply embedded.” Tom’s Shoes, for example, “offers a symmetrical benefit: It gives away a pair of shoes to a person in a developing nation for each pair of shoes it sells.”

Promoting social good can be a helpful recruiting and retention tool. “People are becoming much more interested in joining companies because their values resonate with their own,” Smith said. “I experienced this for myself when I was at Dolby, when the human resources folks came to my corporate social responsibility team because candidates wanted to know more about how we gave back to the community. They’re also more likely to stay at a company if there’s a strategic philanthropy arm. You see greater retention and more excitement for working at that corporation.” Although the idea may not yet be widely accepted, he said, it is possible to create a business, rather than a non-profit, that does good — and does well as a result.

“People don’t have to give something away for free to do good. The for-profit and non-profit worlds are merging,” Aaker said.

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