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Stanford faculty and students launch social media campaign to expand bone marrow donor registry


Harnessing the social web to increase the number of South Asians enrolled in the international bone marrow registry is both a good cause for Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jennifer Aaker, PhD, and part of her curriculum. Now she's working with a group of students from the Haas Center For Public Service to enroll 100,000 people, at least 80 percent of whom are of South Asian descent, to sign up for the bone marrow registry.

One Hundred Thousand Cheeks, which students launched in November, is partnering with the Stanford Blood Center to host a community blood and marrow drive from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Stanford Hospital & Clinics atrium. In this Q&A, Aaker discusses using social media to raise awareness about public health issues and the catalyst for developing the One Hundred Thousand Cheeks campaign.

Your background is rooted in psychology and marketing and your research spans time, money and happiness. What drew you to the study of social media and its potential to produce significant social change?

My background in psychology and marketing has given me insights into the psychology of happiness, meaning and impact. Research on happiness makes it clear that what people think makes them happy (for example: money) does not (at least not to the degree that people think it does). In fact, the happiest people are those who have stopped chasing happiness and instead search for meaningfulness. Although most people still believe that creating meaning or greater good in the world doesn't align with profit making, more and more companies are aligning a profit-oriented business model with the work they love. For example, is a for-profit technology company and contributes one percent of profits, one percent of equity and one percent of employee hours back to the communities it serves.

Social media is not inherently meaningful. Yet the power of social technology, when fully engaged, can be nothing short of revolutionary.

In The Dragonfly Effect, which you co-authored with your husband Andy Smith, a principal of Vonavona Ventures, you provide readers with a model that taps concepts from social media, marketing strategy and consumer psychology to help people use social media tools to cultivate good in the world. What's an example of a challenge that people commonly perceive as a barrier to using social media for a cause, and how does the model resolve this issue?

A few months ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a much-talked-about article for the New Yorker on the inability of social media to cause meaningful social change. Gladwell argues that social networks are effective at increasing participation, but only by reducing the level of motivation that participation requires. In other words: he thinks people confuse re-tweeting something for activism, and, as a result, very little actual activism takes place.

What Gladwell missed, however, was the other mechanisms that are at work when an individual subscribes to a cause through social media. In some cases, the level of motivation actually increases when people subscribe to a well-designed cause. Where does motivation come from? The Dragonfly model focuses on identifying a single focused goal (where the mere thought of it would make you happy, or bring meaning), engaging your audience (through stories), and then harnessing social media to inspire others to act. Well-designed campaigns motivate individuals to make the transition beyond being interested by what you have to say to actually doing something about it.

What characteristics about social media make it particularly well suited to raising public awareness about health-related issues and motivating people to take action?

Most of us are inundated daily with articles, e-mails, videos, status updates and blog posts. As a result, we glaze over and ignore much of what we see online. Campaigns that effectively grab attention are the ones that are paid attention to. Grabbing attention requires personal, unexpected, visual and visceral elements. Public health campaigns are uniquely positioned to take advantage of these elements because of the inherently personal and visual nature of health-related issues. Once you have the public's attention, then you can work to engage them and ultimately inspire them to action.

What was the catalyst for launching the One Hundred Thousand Cheeks campaign and why did you get involved with the campaign?

Two young men, Sameer and Vinay, were struck with leukemia (AML) and a potentially life-saving bone marrow transplant was unavailable because there was no match for them in the registry. Their friends swiftly directed their energies to what they could do to affect Sameer and Vinay’s outcomes. They worked to secure bone marrow matches for both men by taking a highly methodical, businesslike approach that heavily leveraged social networks. In 11 short weeks, they managed to bank 24,611 South Asians in the bone marrow registry. A perfect match was found for Sameer and a good match was found for Vinay. However, both men had the same reaction when finding their match - which was ‘let's get another 25,000 individuals into the registry for others.’ Their instincts, even when faced with their own mortality, is a testament about who they were.

In honor of both men, we wanted to see if we could bank 100,000 individuals into the bone marrow registry. Eventually we hope that the number will grow to a million, if we can help nurture the impressive but nascent efforts in India - toward the goal of building a National Bone Marrow Registry.

To help make all of this possible, Tom Schnaubelt, executive director of the Haas Center at Stanford, James Higa and I brainstormed how we might harness the incredible talent of students here at Stanford. My role in guiding this team is minimal; they have energy and passion that I have really never seen before. They have designed their efforts to execute on basic principles of the Dragonfly model - the power of a single focused meaningful goal, how do you grab attention, how do you engage others (through stories, personal connection) and how to enable others to act. They have pulled out all the steps to find a bone marrow match for their friends and in the process, added substantially to a bone marrow registry that’s since helped thousands of others. Their story, echoes the core story that lead to our book and this campaign. The tools they are developing to reach their goal, echo those used by Sameer and Vinay’s friends.

Photo courtesy One Hundred Thousand Cheeks

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