Jennifer L. Aaker and Andy Smith: An interview by Bob Morris

Jennifer Aaker

Co–authors of The Dragonfly Effect, Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith live in Lafayette, California, with their three children. A social psychologist and marketer, Jennifer Aaker is the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Her research spans time, money and happiness. She focuses on questions such as: What actually makes people happy, as opposed to what they think make them happy? How do small acts create significant change, and how can those effects be fueled by social media? She is widely published in the leading scholarly journals in psychology and marketing, and her work has been featured in a variety of media including The Economist, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, Forbes, CBS MoneyWatch, NPR, Science, Inc, and Cosmopolitan.

Andy-Smith_290 Andy Smith is a Principal of Vonavona Ventures where he advises and bootstraps technical and social ventures. Over the past 20 years, he has served as an executive in the high tech industry leading teams at Dolby Labs, BIGWORDS, LiquidWit, Intel, Analysis Group, Polaroid, Integral Inc. and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. As a guest speaker at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Smith speaks on social technology, engineering virality, and brand building, with a focus on applying technology to address real problems. He is a contributor to GOOD magazine, where he writes on businesses that embrace and integrate a social mission. He has also spoken at The Web 2.0 Expo (#w2e), The 140 Characters Conference (#140conf), World 50, Marketing Week, Intel, TechCore and Interbrand, and appeared on Bloomberg TV and NBC’s Press:Here. He is also on the boards of The Glue Network, 140 Proof, ProFounder, LIF Brands, and One Family One Meal.

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Morris: Looking ahead, let’s say, to the next decade, what do you think will be the single most exciting business opportunity.

Smith: Social technologies allow even small organizations to reach more people than they ever have before. While these technologies and how we use them will constantly evolve, this is an incredible opportunity for anyone with a mission and an Internet connection to go out there and be heard.

Morris: When and why did you decide to collaborate on writing The Dragonfly Effect?

Aaker: I was deeply skeptical of social media and its potential for impact; but Andy has been a fan for a long time. The opportunity to write this book together helped us assimilate these two perspectives, and also lay the groundwork for a model and set of stories that would hopefully inspire our kids.  We are incredibly proud to have all three of them running little businesses (e.g., selling lemonade, cartoon books, DVDs) et cetera, that

a)   have a single focused goal (in their case the model is nonprofit, so they pick their favorite charities for the net proceeds),
b)   grab attention (through good branding),
c)    tell a story and
d)    enable other customers to spread their business.

In the last three years, they have collectively made over $5K donated to three discrete charities.

Morris: Which specific talents, skills, and experience did each of you bring to the collaboration?

Smith: I’m a former teenage entrepreneur that’s grown up in marketing. I understand high tech and saw the social media revolution begin. Often people talk about the Internet in a purely business sense, but Jennifer’s students showed us that social media can bring about real change when it is used strategically and well.

Aaker: I bring ideas and research.  And a jargon-filled writing style, which – frankly – is often not pleasurable to read.

Morris: For those who have not already read this book, written with Carlye Adler, please explain “the dragonfly effect.”

Aaker: The dragonfly effect refers to the idea that small acts can create big change, when the core of the act is deeply meaningful and when the four wings are ‘beating’ in concert in sync.

Smith: There are four parts to the dragonfly effect: create a single, focused goal, grab attention, engage others, and take action. It is these four parts that must work together to create big change.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single most serious problem that people seem to encounter when trying to (and I quote) “harness social technology to achieve a single, focused, concrete goal”? Why?

Smith: There’s a lot of noise out there. Take, for example, online video. Every day, over 200,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube. 24 hours of footage is uploaded each minute. How do you make a video that is compelling, engaging, and shareable-one that stands out from the crowd? Greater access means there are more people out there shouting their message all over the web. Making sure that you’re heard is both essential and difficult.

Morris: I was especially interested in your discussion of Sameer Bhatia. What valuable lessons can be learned from his experiences?

Smith: When Sameer was diagnosed with Leukemia, he approached the challenge like he would any business challenge (he was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur). With focus, efficiency, and hyper-utilization of social media, Team Sameer used web 2.0 services like Facebook, Google Docs, and YouTube to mobilize and empower others to organize bone marrow drives all over the country. In 11 weeks, Sameer’s supporters registered 24,611 South Asians into the bone marrow registry and found a match for both. And the 7,500 people they registered in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Sameer lived, yielded 80 matches for other leukemia patients – an unintended but remarkable consequence.

Morris: Thomas Edison once observed: “vision without execution is hallucination.” The Dragonfly Model has four components: Focus, Grab Attention, Engage, and Take Action. Is having a compelling vision, BHAG, etc. pre-supposed?

Smith: It’s so much pre-supposed, but a clear, focused goal is absolutely required.  The distinction is that it needs to be set at the right altitude. Like the classic BHAG it should not be easy to achieve, but unlike the BHAG, we run goals through a design thinking test (HATCH) to make sure that it’s not just ambitious but can be achieved – while keeping people motivated. Further, Jennifer’s research on happiness shows us that money does not lead to fulfillment. What does? Happiness and meaning (the second H in the HATCH acronym). We present the F+GET model as a way for businesses to bring meaning to their customers and as a way for individuals who seek happiness to find it through being part of something larger than them.

Morris: With which of the four components (i.e. Focus, Grab Attention, Engage, and Take Action) do most people seem to have the most serious problems? Why?

Smith: Engage requires creating a personal connection and compelling people to care deeply. This is probably the most difficult component to cultivate because no one person can care deeply about everything.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of noise and competition for attention out there. Getting someone’s attention for a few minutes is one thing. Convincing that person to engage with your cause of a continual basis requires an emotional connection, which is not something that can be done instantly or through strong arguments.

Morris: How best to avoid or solve those problems?

Smith: It’s about empowering the audience to care enough to want to do something themselves then actually do it. (Think of it as forging a connection, deep and real.) People might follow the following steps:

Tell a story. Find compelling, sticky stories to convey critical information.  Remember: less is more.  Stories have arcs.

• Empathize. Build a 2-way relationship with your audience. What really matters to them in your campaign?

Authenticity. True passion is contagious. The more authentic you seem, the easier it is to connect with you and your cause.  Build common ground by sharing values and beliefs.

Match the media. How we say something can be as important as what we say. Align your communication with the right context.

Morris: In several significant ways, your book serves as a manual for the tools but readers will also be grateful for the resources and support services available at For those who read this interview, please provide a brief explanation of what they will find at the website and how they can use the resources and support services that are most appropriate.

Smith: Social technology is constantly evolving. On we keep readers up to date on what’s happening and provide fresh and diverse case studies on how brands and organizations are leveraging social media. Think of it as an extension of the book that gets updated on a weekly basis.

Morris: The Dragonfly Effect is also what you characterize as a “playbook for using social media.” In your opinion, what is the single most common misconception about what the social media are. And aren’t?
What in fact is true?

Smith: Perhaps the first misconception was that it was just like any other media, just another channel to push a message like radio or TV.  I think most marketers now know better.  There is no faster way to earn the ire of your audience than to merely “port” your ad campaign into the social space. At the same time, social media is not an entirely new animal either, but it is social.  So thinking about how you might engage an individual in person is a reasonably good place to start when thinking about social media engagement. Very topline, social media is a media that defies containment as it is continually evolving. The same time-wasting technology you can use to poke your friend when you can’t even think of a message to send them is also able to help topple a corrupt government. The clashes in Egypt again ignited the debate about the role of social media in activism. Whether the revolution will be Tweeted is no longer the question, since clearly, it has been.

Because social media played a irrefutable role in the uprisings in Egypt (as it did in Tunisia), the question now becomes what exactly has been the significance of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in shaping these events, and what have they been able to help accomplish. While social media certainly didn’t do the work on the ground or only serve as a force for good, many people still like to walk around and say that Twitter is only about sharing the inane details of daily life when clearly it is much bigger than that.

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