The Dragonfly Effect

Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith


Reviewed by Sherry Ladislas

Social media always struck me as an adventure in a theme park. I didn’t have to ride the highest, scariest roller coaster if I didn’t want to; I could just listen to others rave about it after they got off. In fact, the thought of using social media intimidated me. I really didn’t understand how Facebook worked and feared I would accidentally share information that I only wanted my family and close friends to know. I didn’t understand its power until I read The Dragonfly Effect (Jossey-Bass, 2010, $25.95) by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith.

In their book, the authors demystify social media and describe its power to connect with millions. They state that “what we call the Dragonfly Effect is the elegance and efficacy of people who, through passionate pursuit of their goals, discover they can make a positive impact disproportionate to their resources.” Aaker and Smith lay out a strategy based on the dragonfly’s ability to move in any direction. Each dragonfly wing represents one of four “design principles” that are an integral part of the plan “to do something seismic and create a movement.”

Wing 1 represents Focus, an essential for effective communication. The authors illustrate focus with the story of friends and family who band together to help a young, South Asian man find a bone marrow donor to save his life. The project was very difficult because he had inherited a rare gene from his father. In fact, the National Marrow Donor Program had already told the family that of the millions of registered donors in their database, only 1.4 percent were South Asian, leaving them with a 1 in 20,000 chance of a perfect match. Since none of the family members had the right blood type, friends and family began a very organized campaign using Facebook, Google Groups, YouTube and email to find other South Asian donors who might possibly carry the same gene.

They sent a very specific message entitled “Three Things You Can Do,” spelling out the steps in a very succinct manner. Their campaign nearly doubled the number of South Asians registered and that, in and of itself, has saved lives. (You’ll have to read the book to find out whether they were successful in finding a match.)

Wing 2 tackles the subject of how to Grab Attention in a world of competing messages. Case studies offer examples of companies that have figured out how to attract an audience’s attention immediately and deliver the unexpected. One of my favorites is the Show, Don’t Tell tactic. I like its cunning. It gives me, the viewer, credit for my intelligence and counts on my desire to decipher the message. Like a moth drawn to light, I’m sucked in every time.

For example, Apple used a visual strategy to capture viewer attention when it released the iPod. Prior to its release, all ear buds were black. What did Apple do to stand out from all the rest? They made the iPod earbuds white, knowing the difference would attract a buyer’s eye and that people would want what others had. Of course, social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter helped promote the Show, Don’t Tell campaign. Marketing geniuses, those Apple folks.

The white earbuds showed up in other ads also. You may recall a commercial in which the silhouettes of various “hip” individuals danced while holding an iPod. The white earbuds provided an almost luminous contrast against the psychedelic background and the dancing black silhouette. While no one spoke, viewers heard music and saw white earbuds. The only thing you really took away from the ads was that it was cool to have white earbuds.

This chapter of the book also addresses the effective use of Twitter. I used to think that Twitter “chatter” was just drivel in 140 characters or less. I was wrong–somewhat. People do post their fleeting thoughts, but important messages can be conveyed. Remember Arab Spring? More than one dictator was ousted by protests organized via Twitter as protesters spread the word to fellow citizens to meet in certain locations.

Aside from political purposes and relieving boredom, Twitter can be a very useful tool for businesses. For instance, retail companies may tweet coupons that can be re-tweeted (forwarded). Because some users build a high number of followers by auto-following anyone who follows them, the authors caution them to actually measure their success on Twitter by finding out if their ideas/message made it to or to YouTube as a top video. If your message made it to one of these sites, you have a chance of setting off a chain reaction. But, that won’t happen unless you explore and implement engagement as discussed in Wing 3.

“If Grab Attention is about getting people to notice your cause,” write Aaker and Smith,” Engage is about what happens next–compelling people to care deeply, maybe even fall in love.” The authors offer several brief single-page guides to help the reader successfully connect with people on an emotional level. They include Storytelling Boot Camp, a Getting Started with Storytelling flowchart, Video Boot Camp, and a flowchart called Getting Started with Engage. These tools provide ways to infuse your issue or product with enough emotional content to make a memorable impression on the public.

Finally, Aaker and Smith encourage readers to Take Action in Wing 4. They discuss ways to empower others, enable them and cultivate a movement. They illustrate with the story of Alex, a four-year-old girl who battled cancer. While in the hospital, she told her parents that when she got home, she was going to have a lemonade stand to raise money to fight cancer and help other kids.

Sure enough, when she got home, she set up a lemonade stand and charged customers 50 cents a glass. They, however, paid with $5, $10 and $20 bills, telling her to keep the change. She raised $2,000 with her first stand. Her goal was to raise one million dollars. Soon her efforts were duplicated across all 50 states and Canada. She even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Sadly, Alex passed away four years later, but her determination and community involvement taught everyone a lesson in charity.

Her parents created Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, and as of January 2010, have inspired 10,000 people to set up 15,000 stands, raising $27 million. More than 100 research projects at nearly 50 institutions have received funding from the foundation. They accomplished this feat because over 30,000 Twitter followers and 33,000 Facebook fans responded to the foundation’s call to action, taking Alex’s idea and transforming it into a movement.

Aaker and Smith also include Expert Insights in each chapter. For instance, MC Hammer, entrepreneur, co-founder of DanceJam, shares his observations on social media in the final chapter.

Social media can be used to move and shake things without going through the bureaucratic process. Use social media to (1) keep your costs down, (2) tell your story, and (3) grab the analytics behind it and see what the people are saying. Tools like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have lowered the bar of entry. The new bar of entry is how active you are. If you have a cool brand, you should think about being everywhere on social media. If you have the audience, but no momentum, the perception will be that you’re not in or hot.

It’s a barbaric idea that ten people could have the power to decide whether your art is shown. Today, you don’t have to rely on these people: post your art on YouTube and see if it gets a million views. Make sure you get ahead of the story by using social media before it becomes “breaking news.” Let go of the old marketing mantra that told brands to mention only the good. Now we expect a disclosure of flaws–just as we do with friends.

The Dragonfly Effectis also rich in easy-to-follow flowcharts and other tools to help readers maximize what social media has to offer. The book is a great resource, but you’ll have to keep up with the technology. Social media as we know it today will probably look different next year, and the year after, and the year after that.

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