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Nike and Little Girls -- A Happy Secret of Viral Marketing

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Last week, while browsing Sfgate.com, I came across a photo essay that made me want to stick my head into an oven.

If you want to see incredibly well rendered images that do the opposite of motivate action, take a gander. The first photo is that of Jean Paul, a young boy with piercingly sad eyes, born of rape during the Rwandan genocide. The second takes you to a post-genocide Kosovo classroom where students have left red roses on the desk of a murdered friend.

For the record, I love UNICEF (the organization on whose behalf the photo essay was produced). But after viewing two depressing images, I decided I'd rather place pieces of sticky wet bubblegum in my hair -- and then remove them one by one -- than continue viewing.

The reason, it turns out, is a fundamental but often overlooked principle of viral and cause-based marketing -- tapping into happiness.

In their new book, The Dragonfly Effect, Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker and marketing expert Andy Smith provide us with an entertaining and useful guide to using social media for social change. At its heart, the book focuses on one key question: Do I look at your video (or tweet, or photo essay, or email) and immediately understand how my participation in your effort will connect me with tangible meaning and joy? Or does your content provoke an even deeper paralysis about the depressing scale of the problems we face?

Let's contrast the UNICEF photos with the Girl Effect campaign -- a highly viral series of videos produced by the Nike Foundation -- which have garnered close to two million views.

What's the secret sauce here? It's not just good production value, cute graphics, or upbeat music. It's the way the message is framed.

We know the world is in crisis. So instead of overwhelming us with depressing details, the producers surprise us with an unexpected solution. Put a young girl in school and you're well on your way to ending extreme poverty, decreasing violence, and creating stability. The videos make us feel happy, inspired, and best of all, useful. We naturally want to share them.

And so, as it turns out, do world leaders. Not only has the Girl Effect campaign generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations; it's fundamentally changed the conversation about girls' rights. For decades, the issue was considered a niche cause, something that only women's groups would care about. Last year, when bigwigs gathered in Davos for the World Economic Forum, girls' empowerment was the week's hottest topic.

This lesson, while seemingly obvious, is lost on many a do-gooder. Last week, for example, Farhad Manjoo published a New York Times article about nonprofits wrestling with the difficulties of using social media to aid campaigns. Manjoo interviews Wendy Harman, social media director at the Red Cross. She puzzles over why Twitter campaigns generated three million dollars in donations after the Haiti earthquake, but far less money after Typhoon Ondoy.

Donations for each disaster were roughly in keeping with the size of their devastation. But Manjoo curiously emphasizes a very different and more pessimistic conclusion. Raising money through social networks, he argues, is "inherently unpredictable."

The claim is not only incredibly disempowering -- it's also misleading.

Yes, of course luck and timing play a big role in determining which video or twitter campaigns go viral. So do gimmicks. Marketing experts, for example, will advise you to include puppy dogs, babies, or sex in your content if you want to increase your chances of virality. But many corporations that don't sell diapers or condoms have still managed to score home runs with pieces that tap into our fundamental desire for happiness and meaning.

Aaker points to the "happiness machine" video as a prime example of one such effort. Coca-Cola placed a special vending machine on college campuses that (in addition to soda) doled out items like pizza, seven-foot sandwiches, and cupcakes. The hilarious video of students' reactions generated more than a million views, simply through word of mouth.

The reason for the virality of "happiness machine" is the same reason we don't have to be asked to forward the Girl Effect. Content that makes us giggle and feel useful is something we naturally want to share with our friends. A message that underlines how much the world sucks is a much harder sell.

November 20 is International Children's Day, a perfect time to inspire people to improve the lives of girls and boys in need. But if we're going to reach beyond the choir, we need to take this simple principle to heart.

Is there some mystery involved in using social media to make messages spread contagiously? Yes. But it's not as mystical as the gurus would have us believe. A huge factor is simply framing issues in an inspiring, meaningful, and easily actionable way. And in this regard, the practical lessons in Aaker's book are a very useful place to start.
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To see more inspiring takes on the Girl Effect from bloggers this week, watch this campaign page.