I had a conversation recently with Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith about their path breaking new book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change. (Jossey-Bass, 2010)
1) The Dragonfly Effect is the first book to explain what happens at the intersection of social media like Twitter, marketing and psychology. What exactly do you mean by the dragonfly effect?
Jennifer/Andy: At its core the idea is that small, well-coordinated acts can lead to big change. The Dragonfly is a symbol of change, transformation and rebirth, it also happens to be the only insect that can fly in any direction, and even hover when its four wings are beating in concert. The metaphor is meant to bring these ideas together: cross-disciplinary insight, coordination and balance among four key activities, and connecting efforts to deeper meaning for disproportional impact.
2) The book suggests that social media are more like traditional media that most people think. Why is that?
Jennifer/Andy: There’s plenty that’s new in social media, and these differences need both to be observed and taken advantage. We understand new things better when we view them initially through a familiar lens to make them less overwhelming. The content and capability of online video sites like YouTube and Vimeo share a lot with TV. It’s a space for visual storytelling, but attention spans are even shorter, and there’s a lot more to choose from. Capturing attention quickly, making the most of sound and visuals and communicating in 1-3 minutes is critical. Similarly, Twitter is like a sea of newspaper headlines, the sole intent of which is often to intrigue -- compelling a click to learn more. Being effective on Twitter has everything to do constructing great headlines (@TimFerriss is a master of this, for example https://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/08/30/popular-retweets/
Blogging is more like having a newspaper column, but unlike in printed newspapers, fellow columnists are critical to your success, so you must link to and cultivate relationships with them. Oh, and reader feedback is swift, unfiltered and appears right below whatever you wrote. To us, there’s really no point making the social media space more intimidating than it is by not first making these connections.
3) The book suggests that the wonderful thing about social media is that they are available to anyone who wants to make change happen in the world. Does a person need to have any special skills, attitudes or capacities to be effective in the world of social media?
Jennifer/Andy: It’s more about attitude than any single other thing. People with a high need for control, or those who do not respond well to criticism (both fair and unfair) will have significant difficulty. But people accustomed to public speaking, politics or other two-way media roles have an opportunity to do well. Good communication skills, deep empathy and an ability to engage in a real-time, conversational environment generally mark the most successful in the space. That said, not all people will be equally suited across all media. As we discuss in The Dragonfly Effect, people do well to start out playing to their strengths as they begin engaging. If they can take a great picture, shoot compelling video, or write compelling headlines, they should start there. Any one of those skills will help balance out weakness in another domain.
4) The Dragonfly Effect has four wings – Focus, Grab Attention, Engage, and Take Action. You say that the third wing, “Engage” is among the more difficult. What are the keys to engaging?
Jennifer/Andy: The purpose of Engage is to make your audience care. Caring is most effectively achieved not through facts and figures but through effective storytelling. Our brains are wired to process and retain stories much better than logic. As a result, we are more likely to remember a character’s struggle and a story’s ultimate outcome than the number of tons of carbon pumped into our environment in a given year. The difficulty is that while we are extremely experienced, thoroughbred story consumers, most of us are rank amateurs when it comes to actually telling a story. The keys to engagement lie in first understanding the story elements of your effort then applying storytelling concepts (such as story arc, the protagonist’s struggle and suspense) to keep your audience engaged and make them care.
5) The book suggests that the methodology can be applied to any challenge that a person is facing, whether it’s how to get someone to make a purchase, to donate or to participate in a cause. Do you see significant differences in applying the methodology in those different areas?
Jennifer/Andy: The unifying idea is that all other things bring equal, people are increasingly choosing to consider their values when making significant or enduring choices in their lives, particularly where and with whom to spend their time. For employers this may mean needing to offer employees more than a just a paycheck but also an opportunity to give back to the community as Nike did with their WE Portal. For small-dollar or commodity purchases as a daily cup of coffee, customers may identify with and thus choose the place that buys only Free-Trade grown beans such as Starbucks. The product good can also be more intrinsic if there is a significant resonance with the customer as is the case with Bonobos. Bonobos created a unique fit for trousers designed for younger athletic men. They are also sold in a way that reflects the youth and energy of their company and customers.
6) The book suggests that the methodology is applicable in organizational settings and offers a community-based way of brand building that is different from traditional approaches to branding and marketing. What changes would the typical Fortune 500 company have to make to be successful in using social media in this way and how significant are those changes?
Andy: It comes back to a concept of control. As a brand manager I initially felt like I was in control of my company’s brand. Over time, however, I came to realize that while I controlled the logo and the name I did not control the brand. The best that a company can do is steward its brand and realize that the brand is truly controlled by its customers. This observation significantly predates social media, but social media tends to underscore it by eliminating the one-way mirror of the focus group, and bringing the brand and customer together in not always comfortable ways. The fact is that communities have always built brands, whether it’s brands like Harley-Davidson where people literally brand themselves with a logo tattoo, or those like American Express where the act of using the card is an expression of ‘membership’ (recently reactivated by the Members Project). A Fortune 500 company that seeks to be successful in social media needs to spend some time with dragonfly wing one: Focus and determine what their single focused goal is. From there, the question of traditional media versus social media becomes less important than: “What adds meaning to my customers lives and how are we a part of that?”
7) You discuss the psychology of happiness and say that to be effective in getting change through social media, there must a clear goal that at some level makes people happy or is perceived to be worthwhile. Yet big companies are often perceived to be doing whatever they do, not so much to make people happy or to do something worthwhile, but rather to make money for their shareholders. To what extent does this constrain their effective use of social media?
Jennifer/Andy: Companies that do not take an active interest in demonstrating how they are good members of the community are going to have a rough time effectively putting social media to work. (And in an increasingly social environment they may have difficulty attracting customers and employees at all.) Though you can invest in a social media effort, you can’t buy social media itself. The amplification and spread of any message is entirely dependent on members of the community finding a reason to share it. Funny, embarrassing and lewd things (as well as cats) spread well, but those are not always aligned with a brand message. Further, they tend to be quick-twitch / superficial attention-grabs that make no lasting impression and are impossible to repeat. We don’t believe there are a lot of evil companies, because every company is an institution where talented people who have alternative employment opportunities go to work every day. Being big, however tends to de-humanize them and can disconnect them from their mission. One or more of these may cause their public perception to turn negative. What they need to DO is ask their most talented people: "what is it that keeps YOU engaged and coming to work day in and day out?" THERE'S the soul of the company. They might then consider how that story plays with external audiences.
8) The book talks about the dark side of social media, as does Dan Ariely in the book’s Afterword. What is that?
Jennifer/Andy: Any tool is subject to misuse, and new tools are particularly prone to this because people don’t have sufficient experience to know what their pitfalls are. In Dan’s Afterword he examines how The Dragonfly Effect could be used with ill intent by a powerful entity to cause a public distraction. It’s a great, darkly funny exploration (that we keep re-reading) that raises an important point and does a service if it leaves readers more circumspect. Other dark sides include the potential to create a perception of action or participation where there is in fact inaction, and the tendency to create ‘donor fatigue’ when every Facebook friend seems to be hitting you up daily for $1 or $5 for a worthy cause.
9) Malcolm Gladwell has written in The New Yorker that “the revolution won’t be tweeted”. I and many others have disagreed with him. What’s your take on his article?
Andy: I appreciate the intelligent discussion he started as well as the light he SHINES on The Dragonfly Effect. On more than a few points, he and I agree. Though he might lump us in with the evangelists he disparages, in The Dragonfly Effect we devote a section to the dark side of social technology. We observe that there is a danger that a poorly-designed effort will allow people to feel that they have done their part after they click ‘like’ on a cause to save Darfur. Further, online action is not a substitute for offline action. Any effort that does not establish a single, clear goal and manage the steps along the path to get there does all involved a disservice. Unlike Gladwell (perhaps because I approach this as a marketer) I see social media as a remarkable compliment to any effort, not a substitute for something else. In the last presidential election social media played a critical role building awareness, activating and organizing Barack Obama’s supporters. But if they hadn’t maintained a clear focus and recognized the need to get people to take their action offline and vote, he would never have been elected. Social media is an extremely effective way to cast a very wide, citizen-powered net and build awareness extremely quickly through trust-based networks for an issue. It also affords the opportunity for ‘bite-sized’ participation that can ‘ladder-up’ [see Edelman: Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit https://www.scribd.com/doc/10807015/Barack-Obama-Social-Media-Toolkit-by-Edelman ] and lead to further action, an on-ramp to activism – but, to further strain the metaphor, the ramp needs to connect to the freeway at the top.
10) Some people say that social media constitute a huge revolution in society, while others say that this is just hype. How big a phenomenon are social media really? In fifty years time, when people look back on what is happening today, how significant do you think it will appear in the overall scheme of things?
Jennifer/Andy: We think social media is as significant as the advent of Internet media that preceded it. That said, we think the effect will be to permeate media, merging with it, making appreciably all media social rather than have it exist as a sort of sidecar. This change is already afoot in some awkward ways when live events have chats or Twitter streams bolted on to them as well as more subtle ways when user-generated reviews on Amazon or Yelp cause us to favor one product or restaurant over another. Major trends like this go through pendulum swings. In fifty years we are certain that the fervor will seem pretty silly, but as with the mobile and Internet revolutions before it, it will be hard for people to imagine the world without it.
Co-authors Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith
Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist and marketer, is the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Her research spans time, money and happiness. She focuses on questions such as: What actually makes people happy, as opposed to what they think make them happy? How do small acts create significant change, and how can those effects be fueled by social media?
Andy Smith, an experienced tech marketer, is a Principal of Vonavona Ventures where he advises and bootstraps technical and social ventures with guidance in marketing, customer strategy and operations. Over the past 20 years, he has served as an executive in the high tech industry leading teams at Dolby Labs, BIGWORDS, LiquidWit, Intel, Analysis Group, Polaroid, Integral Inc. and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Coauthors and husband and wife, Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith live in Lafayette, California with their two little dudes and a princess.
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