Take a second and consider: out of all the articles, videos, and blog posts you see in a week, which ones do you breeze through and forget, and which ones stick with you?
Which ones do you forward onto your friends, and which ones do you relegate to internet oblivion?
Out of the requests you get on Facebook to support a cause or become a “fan,” to the e-mails you get from Barack Obama to watch a short video about healthcare reform, to a link someone sends you to donate to their charity, how many of them do you take the time to engage with deeply, and how many go, in one eye, so to speak, and out the other?
Most of us are inundated with requests online to take notice of social causes: to “Save Darfur” or to “Campaign for Cancer Awareness”. And yet many of us glaze over and ignore them; or perhaps we join a group but end up taking no real action towards the cause. Indeed, for anyone who has ever created a YouTube video, written a blog, or tried to get someone to join their cause on Facebook, you likely know that simply sending out a request doesn’t always lead to action.
Yet, the power of social technology, when fully engaged, can be nothing short of revolutionary. Micro-loans websites like Kiva.org, which allow people to lend money over the internet to small-business owners in developing countries, have enabled people to change the lives of entrepreneurs in 3rd world countries at the click of a button. With over 2 million online registered users, members of my.barackobama.com mobilized and planned over 200,000 events, wrote 400,000 blog posts, and created over 35,000 volunteer groups during campaign season; and through these online avenues, the campaign raised over 500 million dollars from 6.5 million online donations (the majority of which were under $100 each). And in recent months, The Red Cross has raised over $30 million dollars for Haiti relief through text message donations, allowing people to literally lend a helping hand by using it to send a text.
The same technologies that enable us to “poke” our friends or “retweet” an interesting article are the ones that can connect and mobilize us to bring about change in profound ways. This week I had the exciting opportunity to be on a panel evaluating the final presentations of students taking “The Power of Social Technology,” a course at Stanford Business School taught by Professor Jennifer Aaker devoted to looking at how to promote social good by harnessing the power of social networking technologies.
Professor Aaker’s course was inspired by the phenomenal story of Sameer Bhatia, a Stanford grad who was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 32. Sameer needed a bone marrow transplant, and he needed to find a genetically matched bone marrow donor, fast; but out of 6.8 million people registered at the National Marrow Donor Program, only 1% were South Asians, and the chance for a genetic match was exceedingly low; indeed, Sameer had less than a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a match from the national donor registry.
Sameer’s friend Vinay had also been diagnosed with Leukemia the year before. Both men needed donors and had only weeks to find them. So what did Sameer and Vinay and their family and friends do? They joined forces, took action, and used social media – Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter – to spread their story. Through videos, Facebook ads and groups, and viral messages, Sameer and Vinay’s team reached out across the US and within a matter of weeks, succeeded in registering over 24,000 people of South Asian descent as donors. As a result, Sameer found a direct match, and Vinay a close match, in the time frame they needed, and both underwent transplants shortly thereafter. (Read more about Sameer and Vinay’s incredible story here).
Sadly, despite finding successful donors, both Sameer and Vinay passed away from complications from their diseases; however, their legacies live on strong, through family and friends, as well as the over 250 lives that have been saved as a result of the donors that Team Sameer and Vinay managed to get registered. Their story is one with a powerful, enduring impact: it shows how the technologies we have at fingertips can enable us to share stories, mobilize support, and take action and change lives in ways that have never before been possible. With a collective will fueled by deep friendship and love, Sameer, Vinay, and their friends and families achieved a monumental task that has continued to have positive ripple effects reaching far beyond their original goal.
Professor Aaker, taking inspiration from Sameer’s story, charges her students with a similar mission: in just 5 short weeks of the course, identify a cause, brainstorm how to represent it, and then, make it go viral.
The student groups chose a wide range of topics, from helping students from East Palo Alto get on the track to go to college, to creating a food traceability network to help people know where there food comes, to creating a website where students can ask each other questions and share notes (see all the group projects here). There were three group videos that stood out to me the most:
- Group “Project Baby Warmth: Embrace” promoted a simple product with a simple story: spend $25 and you can support the life of low-weight babies in poor conditions by providing them with a sleeping bag that keeps them warm – and alive. Watch a segment about Embrace on ABCNews:
2. “Women 4 Women” seeks to bring the crafts from artisans in the third world to a market in the US, where one can buy a one-of-a-kind item (instead of say, a carbon copy from Pottery Barn) and in turn, support the livelihood of a woman abroad:
So what makes an online cause successful? The most successful groups, in my opinion, were those that brought together all the elements to engage a viewer – the audio, visual, and stylistic components, as well as the storytelling and individual connection that makes you feel invested in the cause. The videos with the most impact each seemed to touch upon these elements:
Get Attention, Then, Tell A Story
- What makes a video go viral? It’s pretty simple: people watch your video, and like it enough to send it to friends. But achieving this, as anyone who has created a video knows, is far more difficult. In the sea of content on the web, how do you stand out? How do you keep someone interested and watching? Those initial moments that open the video are critical in engaging the viewer; and keeping the pace up is important so that they don’t lose interest. The most effective videos were those where style informed substance; where visuals and songs elevated the message; where you forgot you were watching a video but were simply inspired by a story. This “attention-grabbing” component is critical: because no matter how important your cause, or how moving your story, no cause can be promoted if people don’t take the time to learn about it.
Identify Concrete, “Actionable” Goals
- Creating a viral movement is more than just getting people to watch your video; it’s about inspiring people to contribute to a cause. How do you get someone to not only view your video, but to have it stay with them in a meaningful way? How do you create a goal that is measureable and achievable? Focused and actionable goals were an important element of these projects; and certainly, of any movement for social good. It can be hard to look at a large issue like poverty or lack of education and feel like you can have any impact; but when you remember that you have the power to affect one life in one, measurable way, the illusion of helplessness dissipates and you feel inspired to make a difference.
Turn Awareness Into Action
- Making someone aware of a cause is half the battle; getting them to take real action to do something about it is really the ultimate goal. And though the internet has the capacity to engage a worldwide audience in social good, it also can breed internet apathy. Membership in an online group does not equate with true commitment; we all know it’s one thing to join a Facbeook group for a cause, but it’s quite another to turn that group membership into real-world action. How do you get people to translate their online membership to actually donate their money or time? The groups that succeeded were those that were able to pair their online movements with real life actions, so that the cause didn’t simply evaporate and dissolve into the internet ether.
So from a viewer’s perspective, what came across about using technology for change? It was clear from the group presentations that promoting causes and goals is inherently social, and to be successful, there needs to be that feeling of participation, of networking, of growth, of ripple effects, all of which are a combination of tangible and intangible forces coming together to create a movement that people feel they are a part of. Indeed, the teams that really excelled were the ones that were able to represent their enthusiasm and spirit for their message in an engaging and thoughtful way; in a way that tells a powerful story; and in a way that generates that ‘kinetic energy’ that drives social causes — leaving you with that feeling you get after seeing a video that causes you to continue to reflect on it long after you are away from your computer.
I left Professor Aaker’s class with that feeling: and with the feeling that the power to use social technology for good, to create, motivate, and perpetuate social movements, is a profound power indeed.
It’s truly remarkable to see how quickly and effectively technology can be used to bring people together, whether it’s to register bone marrow donors, or to send a quick text to help Haiti. With over 175 million people logging onto Facebook each day alone, and over 600 “tweets” going out on the web each second, it’s incredible to consider the impact we could have if, both local and global, if we continue to identify and harness these networks for social change.
So the next time you get forwarded information about a cause, remember: every movement starts with one person — one person, and maybe one click of “play” on that YouTube Video.
To learn more about The Power of Social Technology and watch all the group’s videos, click here.
- To learn more about social innovation, and how to harness social media for impact, follow Professor Jennifer Aaker on Twitter.
- To learn more about Sameer and Vinay’s story, go to http://www.helpsameer.org/strategy/, and to read about how to harness social media to help save the life of an individual, see the cases found here.
- To watch one of my favorite “viral videos” for social change, “The Girl Effect”, click here.
**Portions of this blog post, along with my own original contributions, will appear in Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith’s upcoming book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change. Read more at TheDragonflyEffect.com.
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