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Small Acts Create Big Change: A Summary of the Dragonfly Effect

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

What do you use social media for? Do you connect with old friends, read the news, or plan events? What if you used social media for a different purpose? What if you could harness the power of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to create social change, make a difference, and impact the lives of others?

 The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker is a must-have guide for companies and individuals to channel the power of social media for social good by blending the theory underlying social change and the applications of social media. The goal of the book: to help you harness social technology to achieve a single, focused, concrete goal. The authors call their approach the Dragonfly Effect.

Published in 2010, the Dragonfly Effect provides “Quick, Effective and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change.” It’s a relatively short roadmap with just 240 pages, but is packed with useful and practical suggestions and plenty of real-world examples.

The authors got the dynamic name from the dragonfly, the only insect able to propel itself in any direction – with tremendous speed and force – when its four wings are working in concert. This lively metaphor truly illuminates the importance of any integrated effort whether you’re fundraising for a local nonprofit, or launching a presidential campaign.

“To us, what we call the Dragonfly Effect is the elegance and efficacy of people who, through the passionate pursuit of their goals, discover that they can make a positive impact disproportionate to their resources,” write the authors.

We are often flooded daily with messages to participate in compelling social campaigns through emails, articles, videos, posts, and statuses. But most of us glaze over and ignore them, not because we don’t care, but because the messages are hardly compelling.

Simply sending out requests and messages does not guarantee results. In fact, it may promote what some are calling slacktivism. This means instead of protesting, sit-ins, or actively standing up for a cause, people simply retweet or like a status, and moves on, assuming that it is enough.

Yet the power of social technology, when fully engaged, can be nothing short of revolutionary. We see examples of this often. After the earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross raised about $32 million through text messages alone, and connected more than three million people for just one cause.

“The same technologies that enable us to ‘poke’ our friends or ‘retweet’… are the ones that can connect and mobilize us to bring about change,” state the authors.

So what’s the difference between that and slacktivism? There’s a story behind it. Most research has shown us that promoting a personal goal is inherently social, so to be successful, you need to convey your passion into a powerful story that generates “contagion energy” that your audience can reflect on.

“By doing this, you generate participation, networking, growth, and ripple effects –forces that combine to form a movement that people feel they are a part of. Your personal goal then becomes collective.”

The ripple effect, wherein expanding ripples are created when an object is dropped into the water, can mean many things depending on what field you’re studying. In economics, it’s an individual’s increate in spending increases the incomes of others. In sociology, it describes how situations are indirectly affected by social interactions. For the purpose of this book, the ripple effect simply means that small acts can create big changes, which have a positive significant impact on others and over time.

The authors claim that when the epicenter of the ripple effect is based on something that you believe in with a deep meaning, it can create a multiplier effect. In which case, others around you can also feel that same meaning, rally behind the belief, and become more strongly mobilized. The authors call this effect emotional contagion, or when your emotions can infect others.

This is relevant to social campaigns for two reasons. First, it can help explain why some campaigns work and others don’t. Second, emotional contagion is central because it underscores the importance of cultivating social good.

I love what the authors stated, “Tweeting isn’t just sharing what you ate for breakfast this morning; Facebok isn’t just for poking friends. You can leverage these social technologies, strategically and integratively, toward a specific goal that deeply matters to you.”

In other words, the technologies at our fingertips can enable us to share stories, mobilize support, and take action to save lives. The Dragonfly Effect also shows that you don’t need money or power to cause seismic social change. “With energy, focus, and a strong wireless signal, anything is possible.”

The Dragonfly Body

Sameer Bhatia, a Stanford grad and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2007. He had to rely on bone marrow transplants, but since his case was rare, only South Asians were a match.

In an effort to attract more donors, and to save Sameer’s life, his friends, a group of young and driven entrepreneurs and professionals, sought a solution. Their strategy was to tap the power of the Internet to focus on getting 20,000 South Asians into the registry. They crafted an email that was personal, informative, and direct, and included three ways for people to help.

Within weeks, the campaign spread among the Internet community, including another group of activists who were looking for a match for their friend Vinay Chakravarthy. Bone marrow drives were conducted, and after just 11 weeks, 24,611 new people were registered. Sameer and Vinay both found matches, but sadly passed away just a few months after their transplants.

Even though both friends passed, the social campaign that came out of it was highly successful. The authors say that these two groups of people created a campaign that was not only focused, attention-grabbing, engaging, and promoted action, but was authentic, emotional, and created a movement much larger than the their original intent.

This drives at the essential purpose of the Dragonfly Body. It should embody the heart and soul of the concept or person you are aiming to help. While the authors admit that most social change is daunting, revolutions often start with simple ideas and ordinary people.

With a central piece that embodies heart, passion, and drive, the four wings of the dragonfly have the ability and motivation to truly fly.

Wing 1: Focus

It’s no wonder this wing is first; it essentially directs your entire campaign. This wing demonstrates the importance of setting a single focused goal to provide direction, motivation, and operational guidance.

A focused goal is made of five design principles (HATCH):

  • Humanistic: the goal should pay attention to the people you are trying to reach; what are their goals, behaviors, and beliefs?
  • Actionable: create a goal that is both visionary and realistic; do this by creating a single long-term macro goal, and a number of short-term micro goals
  • Testable: be sure your goal is testable because meeting goals provide milestones and opportunities to mark achievement
  • Clarity: specific goals promote better performance, greater satisfaction, and stronger commitment
  • Happiness: the goal you choose needs to be personally meaningful and creates happiness for you; if you aren’t motivated by something fundamental, others are not going to be either

Obama’s Social Networking Campaign

A great example of a campaign that has a clear and focused social media goal was Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. The campaign focused on three key words: hope, change, and action. They did this through strong social media presence. One of their micro goals was to make people feel involved and empowered. They didn’t simply create a Facebook page; they created an environment of involvement, participation, and a sense of purpose in its supporters, each of which was funneled through social network technologies.

Some lessons from the Obama campaign: present a focused message and vision, map out your digital landscape, build relationships, have a clear call to action, and empower brand ambassadors.

Wing 2: Grab Attention

The second wing of the dragonfly is to grab your audience’s attention. One of the key factors for grabbing attention is the stickiness factor, or the ability to grab and hold attention.

Grabbing someone’s attention quickly includes leading with what is important to your audience, start with a fact, begin with a question, and employ humor.

But grabbing attention is much more than capturing someone’s interest for a few minutes. Instead, it’s a deeper, more elaborate clasp that makes them want to know more. The challenge is to create a message powerful and resonates with your audience enough to break through today’s barrage of noise.

To grab and keep attention, your campaign should:

  • Get personal: Messages that metaphorically call out your name cultivate feelings of personal relevance and that is more likely to lead to engagement and behavior change; in other words, people pay attention when it’s about them so foster a personal connection by tagging, commenting, and acknowledging the people you are trying to reach
  • Deliver the unexpected: be original and take Seth Godin’s advice on creating a purple cow, something that stands out and surprises in a sea of black and white
  • Visualize your message: show, don’t tell, and don’t underestimate the importance of visual identity (ex: iPod white earphones, Rock the Vote); attaching your message to powerful images gives your audience the ability to think in a deeper manner about your message
  • Make a visceral connection: sensory-based images are attention grabbing so design your campaign with the primitive brain in mind; scents, sound, sight, hearing, or taste are all great triggers

Wing 3: Engage

“To succeed you need to find something to hold on to, something to motivate you, something to inspire you,” said Tony Dorsett.

Behind any successful social campaign, there is a passionate and engaged group of people that do it because it motivates and inspires them. As someone who seeks these people for your cause, you have to engage them. When your audience is engaged, they care – and emotion rather than reason drives their action. This is what the third wing of the Dragonfly Effect wants to accomplish.

Some key characteristics of engaging campaigns include transparency, interactivity, immediacy, facilitation, commitment, co-creation, collaboration, experience, and trust.

To engage your audience, you campaign must (TEAM):

  • Tell a story: your story is your chance to make people care, so use arcs, start wide, and don’t explain everything
  • Empathize: create personal relevance and empathize with the audience’s needs and feelings
  • Be authentic: you can only engage your audience with something that engages you so increase closeness and connection to reduce social distance; there’s major benefits to being open, clear, and genuine
  • Match the media: to engage your audience, you have to know what networks their on, and how they like to communicate; mixing media builds opportunities for conversations, and feedback with your audiences

Kiva’s Personal Lending

A great organization that has an engaged audience is the microlending nonprofit Kiva. This person-to-person organization connects entrepreneurs in some of the world’s poorest nations to people like you and me. Anyone can sign up, choose an entrepreneur, and lend as little as $25, and help people help themselves. Kiva grew into a bigger organization by seeking compelling individual stories, and enables personal connection those living in global poverty. By establishing these bonds, and utilizing all the design principles of engagement, Kiva has made a difference in the lives of 217,000 entrepreneurs in 49 countries.

Wing 4: Take Action

The fourth wing of the Dragonfly Effect is pivotal, but far from simple. Taking action is about requiring individuals to exert themselves and to transition from feelings to action. If successful, this is how to empower others and cultivate a movement.

Perhaps one of the most important steps in this wing is to have a call of action. What you ask must be highly focused, absolutely specific, and oriented to action. Also, build tools and systems that people can take, and apply to their community and efforts without you. This builds sustainability and ensures a movement lives on.

To empower others to take action, use these design principles:

  • Make it easy: behaviors change when the behavior is easy to do; make the ask small and concrete
  • Make it fun: just because your cause is serious, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun; the fueling effect of fun can help alleviate stress, and guilt, and make people want to join the movement
  • Tailor: an effective way to encourage people to contribute to your cause is to make idiosyncratic fits between their talents, skills, or interests with what you need to accomplish
  • Be open: create a platform that others can add to, take from, share, and alter themselves; design with the principle of sustained transparency and no one should have to ask permission to act

Alex’s Lemonade Stand for Action

Alex Scott was diagnosed with an aggressive form of childhood cancer before her first birthday, but that didn’t stop her. When she was four, Alex came up with a plan to have a lemonade stand to raise money to fight cancer and help other children. She raised more than $2,000. Alex reopened the stand each summer, and news began to spread with promotion from the Oprah Show and the Today Show.

Alex succumbed to cancer when she was eight, but in her too-short life managed to raise $1 million for childhood cancer, promoted communities, taught children about charity, and to have fun while making a difference.

Alex’s small lemonade stand grew to a nonprofit organization that encourages children all around the U.S. to have their own stands to raise funds for cancer research. The organization embraced all four wings of the dragonfly: it focused on the goal of honoring Alex, grabbed attention by tapping into an American tradition, engaged people’s emotions through Alex’s story, and gave people the tools to take action.

Onward and Upward

The Dragonfly Effect is a great read for anyone who wants to accomplish something, whether in your business, community, or country. The authors stress that this effect is ideal for creating social good – whatever that means to you. It’s adaptable for most situations, and has fundamental advice for cultivating a community of like-minded people. And with the power of social media at your fingertips, there’s an even greater opportunity to have an impact than ever before. Why not make it a good one?

If you’re like me, at this point you feel disillusioned by the idea of lofty social changes. It’s intimidating, daunting, and seemingly impossible, even with this helpful guide. The authors acknowledge that there is a definite fear factor in most endeavors, but the key is to remain motivated and to continue pursuing your goal.

Remember, you can’t change the world overnight, but you can change the lives of individuals, one step at a time. The idea is to create an effect of social change, so you need to have people on your side.

Al Gore once said, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Movements don’t happen overnight, but they don’t happen at all without someone with an idea. Why not let that person be you?

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