Social-Media Engagement: A Case Study From The Dragonfly Effect

Scott Harrison was at the top of his world. The 28-year-old New York–based nightclub and fashion promoter excelled at bringing models and hedge-fund kings together and selling them $500 bottles of vodka. He had money and power. Yet his lifestyle brought something else: emptiness. Harrison felt spiritually bankrupt.

So he walked away, volunteering to serve on a floating hospital offering free medical care in the world’s poorest nations. Serving as the ship’s photojournalist, Harrison was quickly immersed in a very different world. Thousands would flock to the ship looking for solutions to debilitating problems: enormous tumors, cleft lips and palates, flesh eaten by bacteria from waterborne diseases. Harrison’s camera lens brought into focus astonishing poverty and pain, and he began documenting the struggles of these people and their courage.

After eight months, he moved back to New York, but not to his former life. Aware that many of the diseases and medical problems he witnessed stemmed from inadequate access to clean drinking water, he decided to do something about it. In 2006, he founded charity: water, a nonprofit designed to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Harrison launched the organization on his 31st birthday by asking friends to donate $31 instead of giving him a gift. It was a success—the birthday generated $15,000 and helped build charity: water’s first few wells in Uganda. In the three years that followed, Harrison’s simple birthday wish snowballed into donations that today total more than $20 million, translating into almost 3,000 water projects spanning everything from hand-dug wells and deep wells to protection for springs to rainwater harvesting. The organization has now provided clean water to more than 1.4 million people spanning 17 countries. Its success can be explained through four design principles for generating engagement with a brand through social media.

Empathize with your audience. Let people engage with your brand to learn what’s important to them and how it relates to your campaign. charity: water evoked empathy through the use of photographs and videos that revealed the urgency of the water problem in the developing world. Instead of relying just on statistics, the organization promoted compelling stories that forced people to think about what it would be like to live without access to clean water.

Emphasize authenticity. True passion is contagious, and the more authenticity you convey, the more easily others can connect with you and your cause. Because of charity: water’s commitment to transparency, donors not only understand the history that gave rise to the organization but also know exactly where their money goes. Reports and updates on the charity’s Web site connect donors directly to the results of their generosity.

Match the media with the message. How and where you say something can be as important as what you say. charity: water has a staff member dedicated to updating various social-media platforms and creating distinctive messages for Twitter and Facebook fan pages. The organization also relies heavily on video. One of charity: water’s most effective video projects involved convincing Terry George, the director of the film Hotel Rwanda, to make a 60-second public-service announcement in which movie star Jennifer Connelly took a gasoline can to New York City’s Central Park, filled the can with dirty water from the lagoon, and brought it home to serve to her two children. The producers of the reality TV show American Idol agreed to broadcast the spot during the program, ensuring that more than 25 million viewers saw it.