I recently read the book The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker (@aaker) and Andy Smith (@kabbenbock). The book is packed with case studies from nonprofits and how they are leveraging the power of social media to do something good. From Charity: Water and Alex’s Lemonade to Kiva and Tom’s Shoes, the authors tell the stories of how these organizations are using social technologies to engage and inspire people to participate in movements for change.
It’s true that a dizzying number of people have written about the mechanics of using social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. But only a few are writing about how to use social media to do something that really matters. The authors of The Dragonfly Effect fall into the latter category. Like you, I wanted to know more about how nonprofits can harness the power of social media to deliver positive change, so I contacted Jennifer Aaker. She graciously agreed to an interview and now I am passing it along to you.
Design Principles of Engagement
RC: Can you expand a bit more on how to make people connect with a nonprofit’s goals? How do nonprofits engage people through social media so that they really connect with the mission of the organizations?
JA: Chapter 3 of the book explores how to create a personal connection, accessing higher emotions, compassion, empathy and happiness. It’s about empowering the audience to care enough to want to do something themselves…and actually do it. Think of it as forging a connection, deep and real.
The engagement strategy has 4 main components: tell a story, empathize, be authentic and match the media. Let’s explore these four principles with the case study from Charity: Water.
Charity: Water: Using Social Media to Engage Supporters
Scott Harrison was at the top of his world. The New York-based nightclub and fashion promoter, who excelled at bringing models and hedge-fund kings together and selling them $500 bottles of vodka, had money, power, and beautiful girlfriends. Yet his lifestyle brought something else: misery. Harrison felt spiritually bankrupt.
So he walked away and [instead] volunteered for a floating hospital offering free medical care in the world‘s poorest nations. Serving as the ship’s photojournalist, Harrison was quickly immersed in a very different world. Thousands would flock to the ship looking for solutions to debilitating problems—enormous tumors, cleft lips and palates, flesh eaten by bacteria from water-borne diseases. Harrison‘s camera lens brought astonishing poverty and pain into focus, and he began documenting people‘s struggles, and their courage.
After eight months, he moved back to New York—but not to his former life. Aware that many of the diseases and medical problems he witnessed stemmed from inadequate access to clean drinking water, he founded Charity: Water, a nonprofit to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Harrison launched the organization on his 31st birthday by asking friends to donate $31 instead of giving him a gift. It worked: the birthday generated $15,000 and helped build Charity: Water‘s first few wells in Uganda. In the three years that followed, Harrison‘s simple birthday wish snowballed into donations totaling $13 million, which translated into 1,548 water projects assisting more than 800,000 people.
The reasons for Charity: Water‘s success can be explained through four design principles for generating engagement with your brand through social media. First, tell a story. Find simple, compelling stories to convey critical information. Second, empathize with your audience: let it engage with your brand to learn what’s important to them and how it relates to your campaign. Third, emphasize authenticity. True passion is contagious, and the more authentic you appear, the easier it is for others to connect with you and your cause. Finally, match the media with the message. How and where you say something can be as important as what you say.
Harrison’s personal story—evoking themes of redemption, change, and hope—engaged others on an emotional level. By candidly discussing why and how he started Charity: Water in media interviews and YouTube videos, the thoughtful and accessible thirty-something Harrison helped viewers fall in love with him and his cause by showcasing what was possible.
Charity: Water also found a way to evoke empathy through the use of photographs and videos that revealed the urgency of the water situation in the developing world. Instead of relying on statistics, the organization promoted compelling stories to its audience: the 15-year-old boy in Murinja, Rwanda, who no longer walked five times a day with a 20-pound Jerry Can on his head to get necessary water; a mother in Uganda who now had water to grow vegetables, clean her children‘s uniforms, and bathe; the people of Rio Platano, Honduras, who no longer get sick from contaminated water. The approach forced people to think about what it would be like to live without access to clean water.
Charity: Water’s campaign evoked the third principle of engaging with people—authenticity—through its commitment to transparency. Donors not only understood the history that gave rise to the organization but knew exactly where their money went. Reports and updates on the organization’s website connected them directly to the results of their generosity.
Finally, Charity: Water excelled at matching the media to its message. The group had a staff member dedicated to regularly updating various social media platforms and creating distinctive messages for Twitter and Facebook fan pages. It also relied heavily on video. One of Charity: Water’s most effective video projects involved convincing Terry George, the director of the film Hotel Rwanda, to make a sixty-second public service announcement in which movie star Jennifer Connelly took a forty-pound gasoline can to Central Park, filled it with dirty water from the lagoon, and brought it home to serve to her two children. The producers of American Idol agreed to broadcast the spot during the show, ensuring that more than 25 million viewers saw it.
RC: This is the kind of example that nonprofits need to know about. The nebulous concept of “engagement” is now translated in actionable steps that anyone can do. I particularly like how stories can inspire others. Any closing thoughts on this topic?
JA: Empathize. Listen to others. That allows you to feel what they are feeling, and understand what is meaningful to them. Emotions are contagious. Meaningful purpose garners extraordinary support. The right idea—seated in emotion—grows exponentially. Take how Jessica Jackley, while earning her MBA, raised money online to bootstrap entrepreneurs in the developing world. Now Kiva.org has made over $120M in micro-finance loans with the assistance of individuals who have made loans.
And tell stories. Stories are sticky: they bring facts to life and infuse them with passion. Physiologically, our brains are hardwired for stories to organize and orient information. And psychologically, we need patterns to understand. Stories also increase the chance that your audience will remember your message (humans remember only 1%-10% of what they hear). Salient, meaningful messages, however brief, mobilize communities.
RC: Thanks, Jennifer.
Want to win a copy of The Dragonfly Effect?
I am giving away 1 copy of the book. If you want to win this copy, leave a comment or like this post. The winner will be announced a week from today’s post.
Unlike my other posts, I am featuring a book– a book I encourage you to buy. Why? I learned from Jennifer that the net proceeds of this book are going to seed social good businesses and toward building a bone marrow registry in India. Check out the video below featuring Jennifer (great presentation, as usual) and The Dragonfly Effect website.
And check back soon as I will be sharing more insights from Jennifer Aaker, co-author of The Dragonfly Effect.
Below are other great posts exploring how nonprofit and corporations are using social media tools to increase their brand profile, manage their reputation, empower supporters and connect with new constituents.
1- The Dark Side of Social Networking. Fast Company.
Where did JPMorgan Chase & Company go wrong?