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Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.
Feeling blue, or maybe a little out of touch? There are social psychologists devoted to understanding you, including marketing professor Jennifer Aaker, PhD ’95. Aaker teaches courses such as Designing Happiness and The Power of Social Technology.
She and her husband, marketing strategist Andy Smith, wrote The Dragonfly Effect, a book about social change inspired by an entrepreneurially organized campaign to help a Stanford alum find a bone marrow donor. Stanford met with Aaker to discuss her research; this edited transcript is a fuller version of the conversation that appears in print.
The heart of your research is about time, money and happiness. And that has led you into research on using marketing techniques for social good. Why is that important for business students?
I think what you’re seeing right now with this generation that MBAs fall into is a thirst to create organizations that aren’t just built to maximize profitability, [but] are intended to have a significant impact on the world in a positive way. And the way we define social good is more broadly than the way prior generations have defined it. It doesn’t just have to do with positive employee practices or what you’re doing to the environment. It’s trying to maximize the positive impact you’re having on the world, which includes employees and customers, and then the broader context of minimizing the negative unintended consequences of what you’re doing in the world.
And it has positive impact on the bottom line as well. We see time and again that companies that are more thoughtful about what social good they’re creating not only reduce their cost structure, oftentimes around sustainability practices, but have an easier time retaining and attracting talent.
You’ve been studying the impact of social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. How are they changing the way people and organizations can accomplish things?
They give significant power to the individual, and they’re tools that can be used even if you have no money. An individual with limited time—perhaps no money—can still have a significant influence within the organization and outside the organization.
If you look at [online shoe retailer] Zappos, many point to that organization as a good story around employees feeling empowered to tweet on the part of Zappos. The CEO famously has a very large Twitter following and talks a lot about moments of happiness. Not just product, or not just coupons or deals for Zappos, but talks about things that he’s seeing, funny observations; and in that process people feel like they get to know him, and similarly they feel like they get to know employees. And what you’re seeing right now in business is, the greater the degree to which a company feels like it has a human face, the more people feel it’s authentic, the more they feel they can trust the company.
You’re seeing increasing amounts of distrust of for-profits, an increasing amount of distrust of nonprofits even—like, where is our money is going?—and an increase of distrust of government. And it’s in that context, where there’s a significant trust deficit, that we as a culture are increasingly thirsty for human authenticity, a feeling like, I get why this company is doing what it’s doing. What Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and these other tools and channels have given to companies is the ability to have a human interface with a larger public.
You answered largely in terms of businesses. You also mentioned governments, and you’ve been associated with causes to help individuals who are ill. Your work also has taken you into the implications that go beyond business.
If you look at the U.S. government, they’ve actually started to do an increasing amount of work around harnessing social media to get greater transparency [about] what we’re doing internally—what the White House is doing, what the Navy is doing, what serve.gov is doing. Each of these entities within government is starting to experiment with social media as one way of making the greater public feel more connected to government and also to increase at least perceived transparency of what they’re doing.
There must be a downside in terms of the potential for distortion or manipulation.
There are significant negative unintended consequences associated with social media. One is this distortion, or this ability for very extreme arguments to have more voice or gather more attention. A second downside is the fact that a lot of private conversations are becoming inadvertently very public, at perhaps a stage where they weren’t supposed to be. There’s time when conversations should be private and thoughts should be morphed in a smaller environment. And increasingly we’re finding that it’s hard to find those private moments [in] business, government or creating movements.
Or even raising kids. We have three young kids and we’ve had early conversations about everything that you text, everything that you share online, you have to assume that everyone will see it. And that if you want to be a CEO of a company, or the president of the United States, you have to understand [that] what you’re writing right now, you have to be so proud of that in 30 or 50 years, [when] you look back and see that quote that you just wrote, you should feel pride about it. So, yes, there are huge implications.
One big element in your work is studying the connection between emotions and motivation. Do emotions trump other factors—logic, budget, need—in the way consumers or citizens make decisions?
I don’t believe emotion trumps logic, budgetary concerns, operational concerns. I think what we try and do in our research as well as in this book, The Dragonfly Effect, is simply highlight the power of emotion in the context of logic and budget and operational concerns. What you’re [seeing] right now, especially with social media, is that people oftentimes step away from messages that only rely on logic, or only rely on money—a price deal or a reason to step closer to the company because it’s cheaper or it will give you money. And there’s a lot of research to back that up: that when people are primed with monetary cues people actually step away. But what hasn’t been seen as much in the world of business and marketing is the power of emotion to make people step closer. It’s not that it trumps these other factors as much as it is a complement, to understand that emotion plays a very important role in making people especially step closer to a brand or a cause.
It’s the integration of data or logic or budget with emotion that allows the most powerful means of persuasion to happen. And sometimes you’re going to dial up the data and other times you’re going to dial up the story, which evokes emotion, and you’ll get differential persuasion effects. But it’s really having multiple tools working together that allows for the most effective marketing campaigns toward causes or brands.
Does a singular example come to mind, perhaps in the consumer realm?
I think that Nike has just done a tremendous job of focusing both on logic, and in this case product quality, in their shoes. But they spend equal amounts of attention honing story and a human interface (ever since Michael Jordan) to what they’re doing with Stanford football. You see a real toggling between the need to have solid product attributes and high quality, but we also need to have the story. They nurture both of those things.
You’re a leading proponent of design thinking, which is famously associated at Stanford with the innovations and inventions from the d.school. How does it apply to marketing?
A lot of the principles within a design-thinking mindset are essentially the same principles that infiltrate really good marketing practice. So you think about what the d.school’s been able to codify and teach so effectively. A lot of those skills are essentially the same skills taught in marketing, but oftentimes in different ways.
For example, deep empathy—really understanding what an individual needs and wants—is the core of marketing. Storytelling—this idea of cultivating stories and also sharing stories as a means of cultivating empathy or working toward a product innovation—is also very central in marketing. Having a point of view, which is essentially a hypothesis, for this user, telling this story—this is what our technology is going to bring, and this is why it’s going to take—is also a very basic principle of experimentation and the principle of rapid prototyping.
With Facebook Insights, with Google, what you’re able to do in terms of a YouTube context, all of these tools allow rapid prototyping of marketing campaigns to happen to a significant degree far more easily than even five years ago. And to [be] done by an individual within the company, without a large team, without a large budget. You can also play with the power of brand in these contexts. You can launch a video or a marketing campaign without the brand name on it, and with the brand name on it, to understand how the differential response to those two campaigns is helped or hurt by the brand, versus a generic version of it.
First published in Stanford Magazine.