Christina Lee
Christina Lee
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Andy Smith is the co-author of The Dragonfly Effect –  an inspirational and yet practical handbook on how to use social media to drive seismic social change.   In this interview, Andy talks about what the Dragonfly Effect is and the secret to building customer loyalty with social media.

1. Let’s start with the obvious question.  What’s the Dragonfly Effect?

The Dragonfly Effect, is an idea from chaos theory describing how a small act can cause big downstream effects. We extend it to encompass the power an individual can have to set positive change in motion.  This is done through the careful and coordinated execution of four distinct processes:

  • Focus – Establishing a clear, simple, measurable goal that the mere thought of achieving makes you happy
  • Grab Attention – Making people look and pay attention to what you have to say in a way that’s true to your effort
  • Engage – Making people care through telling a true story that inspires people to act
  • Take Action – where you put the tools from Grab Attention and Engage into your audience’s hands and make it easy and fun for them to take on your effort as their own

The dragonfly symbology fits because the creature is a symbol of change, transformation and rebirth. And the dragonfly is unique in that it is the only insect that can fly in any direction and even hover when its four wings are moving in concert.

Mobilizing epic social movement: An interview with Andy Smith2. Many books have been written on how to create social media strategies for the ever-increasing number of tools.  You have a rather different perspective – social media is a means to an end and that the revolutionary power of social media is truly elicited when it’s connected to a specific goal that deeply matters to an individual.  Tell us more about that.

When you start with deep empathy (human-centered design), you move to the forefront both for your own reasons for doing something as well as why an audience will care. The forwards, re-postings and actions then become much more predictable and replicable.  When you design programs that connect with what brings meaning to people and offer them a way to achieve it, success becomes much more likely.

3. The number one challenge that many organizations and brands face in using social channels to getting the word out is noise.  There is just a ton going on –endless feeds you get from people you follow, updates from friends, and advertising. Social media tools have become our best friends and enemies.  How could one break through to make an impact?

Once you’ve established and vetted your goal, breaking through the clutter is your next task. We call it grabbing attention. This process is deeply informed by the very best marketing and advertising programs. The key is to stand out and there are four design principles we identify to achieve this:

  • Personal – Create an appeal with a personal hook in mind
  • Unexpected – People like consuming then sharing new information. Draw them in by piquing their curiosity. Seek to reframe the familiar
  • Visual – Show, don’t tell. Photos and videos speak millions of words
  • Visceral – Design campaigns that trigger the senses through sight, sound, hearing, or taste. Music can be especially helpful to tap into deep, underlying emotions

4. Can you share some tips with our new Ning Creators who’re trying to build a following?

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of having single, clear goal. This will remind people why they are at your site and want to belong to your community. Having and telling your story well is another often-missed piece of socially-minded efforts. Facts and figures, no matter how shocking, don’t motivate people to act. Stories do. What’s the story behind your site? Why are you creating it? Who is the protagonist? What is their struggle? Stories are easy for people to share because they remember them and because stories are interesting. Clearly tapping into the power of storytelling will pay huge dividends as you approach all the other aspects of your effort.

5. One thing we constantly heard from our Ning Creators (many of whom are marketers and non-profit organizers) is that you need to work hard to engage and grow your members.  Utilizing social channels doesn’t mean a community is formed organically.  What’s your perspective?

We know there are no perpetual motion machines. Particularly at the early stages, membership growth will take a lot of effort. Also, no matter how decentralized you make your effort, there is still a crucial role for those at the center, particularly in the dragonfly wing.  Focus – keeping the effort clear and singular in its goal and Take Action – ensuring that the tools, and tips are constantly evolving and make it fun and easy to help you with the heavy lifting.

The community certainly contributes to the effort and may yield some extremely motivated people who want to take on larger roles — and you should let them [see the write-up on the Obama campaign in the book for the gold standard in doing this].

As Ning Creators, you recognize that the same tools that make it easy for you to establish your cause online also make it harder to stand out. You can avoid this by being vigilant – seeing tools as means to an end not as differentiators and, staying close to your effort and to the deep-seated motivators of the people in it.

6. I know you’ve done a lot of research on this topic.  What are the common characteristics of the thriving communities you’ve seen?

We profiled two thriving communities in our book: Charity: Water and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF). Both of them use the power of story extremely well —  a disillusioned club promoter seeking deeper meaning, and a little girl struck with cancer who decided to sell lemonade one cup at a time to fund childhood cancer research. They both deeply understand the power of giving people something they can do with their time — not just their money.

Charity: Water encourages people to forgo birthday presents and instead ask their friends to donate the amount they would have spent on a present to fund a well for a village in the developing world. ALSF provides you with all the materials, guidance and even the PR you need to hold your own lemonade stand to raise money to fight cancer.  Another key element that’s evident in the above is that online activity is not an end in itself but is always directed to offline action (cancer research, well digging). Offline action not only provides the community with a physical social outlet which strengthens bonds but also ensures a connection with purpose and goal achievement.

Plenty of criticism has been leveled at social media for it’s potential to enable slactivism, the appearance of activity where there is none. In many cases, such criticism is unfair, but it is up to the organizer of any effort to ensure that the energy they concentrate is directed to real-world action; both Charity: Water and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation ace this test.

7. To many people, Ning is the platform that weaves social conversations into content to inspire actions.  The key to success is about finding a way to motivate your evangelists to spread the word. Do you think one can engineer virality? If yes, how?

Both individuals and brands have spent a lot of time and energy chasing success in social media, particularly trying to make something go viral — the holy grail of the space. The trouble is that although plenty of videos do get a million views on YouTube, you can’t Frankenstein your way to viral success, dissecting then reassembling appeals based on what seems to have worked for someone else. We know that humor, pain, embarrassment and – inexplicably – cats often play a role in viral hits, but in many cases the magic, irresistible element of the piece was unintentional – making it extremely hard to replicate.

We think time is better spent deeply understanding the viewers than poring over previously successful viral content. Social media effectiveness is the product of exposure times and desired action.  In the social space the people ARE the media buy. Their forwards, ratings and re-postings are the means by which your message is exposed to a broader audience. Having a clear call to action in the item is the other half, because awareness itself does not solve any problem. The one-two-three punch is to first connect the piece to deep meaning, then present a clear and appropriate call to action, and finally make it insanely easy to spread the word.

8. While social media has gone mainstream, it’s still in a nascent stage with limitless possibilities.  What do you think is the next big theme in this space?

I think the next theme will be refinement. We will see more subtle variations than entirely new themes themselves.  I think we will see the line get blurrier between social media and what we think of today as traditional media, as well as between media and commerce. As an example, when you last made an Amazon purchase, did you pay attention to the consumer reviews of the product?  I bet you did. It turns out that presence of customer reviews (even bad ones) can increase sales of a product.

Another encouraging theme is the increasing emphasis that people, particularly those entering the workforce now, are placing on working at a place that shares their values. This trend will lead to better business where the ‘good’ is baked in to the business model. They will do this because doing good as part of doing well will lead to higher employee satisfaction and lower turmoil, greater customer loyalty (Will you buy your morning coffee from the cafe that only buys Fair Trade grown beans, or the other one that doesn’t?) and a clearer business direction.  I see social media playing a key role in these transformations and in the process, it too will be transformed.