The Art of the Flash Mob, Or How to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself

27 10 2011

I know, I know. Flash Mobs are supposed to be spontaneous, and they’re still trending because they’re so open to interpretation. And I know that once you standardize something, it becomes rote and boring. But let’s face it, now that companies are joining in, we need to set up some ground rules to avoid hasty promotional efforts muddying up this art form and prevent real embarrassment.

Yes, Flash Mobs are quirky, funny, and trendy–and, as such, they can be an effective way to cut through the marketing and advertising clutter that this digital marketplace. The logic goes something like this: Do something seemingly spontaneous in which multiple people get together in a planned spontaneous way in a public place and make a spectacle that people will capture and post to YouTube, forward to friends, etcetera and etcetera.

Though seemingly easy as that sounds, there are some who have gotten it, and some who have not. Let’s start with the have nots (or at least one have not): Arby’s.

Now, let’s forget for a second that this is the absolute worst ad jingle out this year (I’m not alone on this one: 115,000 people agree).  Let’s look just at the delivery of this Arby’s-sponsored event. First, if you’re going to do a flash mob, at least make sure the flash-mobbers are all on the same page, know the dance steps, can effectively keep the beat, and, in this case, can sing on key. Second, there’s an issue of credibility here: It’s just hard to imagine that a group of people would actually get together to dance and sing about Arby’s, using that jingle, and in the rain. Which brings up the third point: They tried too hard. Yes, it’s in the rain, and yes, that means everyone can carry a pink umbrella, and yes, it fits the message strategy: Arby’s is “good mood food” even on a rainy day. But if you want to make an outdoor spectacle captured by hundreds of smartphone cameras, make sure it’s at a moment when people will actually want to stand there and record it. Last of all, a flash mob needs to be at least somewhat entertaining. This one, with its lack of coordination and questionable spontaneity, may have tipped the uncomfortable-to-watch and unintended-comedy scales in the wrong direction. The result: only 6K youtube viewers with 3x as many dislikes as likes (Lest ye be deceived that 6K is respectable:  this guy gets almost 30-100K per video rant)

Now, let’s move to an example that actually works as a flashmob: The Copenhagen Philharmonic Performs Ravel’s Bolero.

Public place? Check.

Entertaining? Check.

Believable Spontaneity? Check.

Worth capturing and posting online? Check.

The beauty of the Copenhagen Philharmonic’s flash mob is that not only was it a perfectly executed flash mob–planned but seemingly spontaneous–the medium matched the message. Fans of Ravel’s Bolero will know that the beauty of the piece is its incremental addition of musical elements on the same theme, growing to a powerful conclusion. The flash mob matched the piece’s brilliant simplicity, and earned its space as a public spectacle evidenced by the slowing of foot traffic as busy commuters stopped to enjoy the music and its 2 million+ hits.

What do these two dramatically different episodes tell us about the art of flash mobbing?

1) The Medium Has to Match the Message: Just because you can get people to dance and sing in public in proclamation of the love of your brand doesn’t mean you should. The art of the flash mob is that it earns public attention by being creative and original–not just because it’s public.

2) It must be Spontaneous, but planned: In spite of its seemingly spontaneous nature, a flash mob must be planned, which means incentivizing the right people and actually practicing beforehand.

3) Right place, right time, please: Arby’s chose Times Square even though there are no Arby’s in Manhattan. Sure, it’s the most “visible” place in the country, if not the world, but why not Atlanta where they’re headquartered? Why not draw on possible local pride? It’s probably also best to avoid rainy days, no matter how much you think a “singing in the rain” remake will fit your brand message.

4) It has to be creative: For a trend as old as YoutTube, we need to move beyond dancing and singing. There are plenty of spontaneous collaboration efforts out there to choose from. Anyone up for some good old fashioned Vaudeville?

5) Create a Spectacle, but Don’t Embarrass Yourself: What did our moms used to tell us? Don’t make a scene. That advice even pertains to Flash Mobs, which is odd because you’re trying to make a scene. But one thing is to put together a creative coordination of random strangers that draws cheers–It’s another thing to draw a crowd of onlookers for an embarrassing public spectacle. They’re both going to get posted on YouTube and they’re both going to get views. Embarrassing will certainly “cut through the clutter,” but probably not the way you were hoping.


Resurrecting the Press Release?

16 09 2011

3 years ago I proclaimed to a public relations class that the press release could see its virtual end in a few years, thanks to Twitter. My proof? This post from journalist Tom Foremski, and the fact that Twitter accomplishes better what the Press Release is designed to do: Get the news out quickly and concisely. Now, don’t get me wrong, getting your story to the local, regional, national and even global press will never vanish. Press agentry is a live and well. But the press release as we know it? Dead. Dead because journalists need more. Dead because social media users are changing the media game.

And then Google did this:

The tweet linked to a Google press release entitled: “Google Just Got Zagat Rated” (which you can find here). The press release is anything but traditional. Sure, it features the usual wasted-space quotes proclaiming that the company A (Google) is “excited,” “pleased,” or “hopeful” about the merger with company B (Zagat) (you know, the stating-the-obvious quotes that have no news value whatsoever). But there are a few “innovations” to this revived press release:

It Spreads the Voice Around. This press release isn’t only bylined, it’s relevantly bylined. I asked my students in my digital PR and Ad class at the Univ. of Houston last week why the VP of Local, Maps and Location Services bylined this press release. That is, why not one of the dynamic duo (Larry Page or Sergey Brin). The answer I was looking for (and which they caught on to in seconds…my students are brilliant, and yes I’m biased) was: Strategic Relevance. Zagat, the foodie ratings company, matters much more to mapping services than, say, Adsense, Blogger, or Google+. It’s quite simple actually: It makes even more sense NOW to use google maps than any other mapping service because before you get directions, you get help making the decision whether to make the trip in the first place.

The Dynamic Duo “Holy Schmidt Batman, Eric’s Gone!”

It’s written with the Audience in Mind: Foodies. The intro has “Foodie” written all over it. Local-Diamond-in-the-Stripmall-Rough restaurant reference? Check. Food rating? Check. Word-of-Mouth-Credibility? Check. Personal story? Check. Yep, it’s all there…at least in what, for all intents and purposes, would be considered the lead. Mayer even adds her own vote of confidence for the 27 point food rating of the unrelated restaurant mentioned in the lead.

It’s Quirky.  Much has been made about the quirkiness of Social Media. As of yet, no one has actually defined what it means to be quirky, but I would imagine it would include synonyms like ironic, weird bordering on uncomfortable, but funny in a strange, you’ve-got-to-be-there sort of way. By these definitions, this post is quirky because Mayer slobbers all over the press release, gushing about Zagat and the new acquisition in a “should we give you two some time alone” sort of way. It looks like professional writing watered down to be conversational, and for most media outlets (i.e. Wall Street Journal), it probably doesn’t work. Online? Fine by me.

What it doesn’t have is the usual stuffy, high-minded verbiage about company profits, projected revenue, and the other technical mumbo-jumbo that the everyday reader, not to mention the Foodie, would probably gloss over anyway. Unfortunately, that means it’s also a little bland on investor-relevant information and almost devoid of any quotables for a reporter. But then again, a “press release” this isn’t. A “social press release”–Maybe. One friend excitedly sharing news with another–definitely. A press release as we know it? Probably not. And yet, this new incarnation could spark the revival of Press Release Writing.

Editors Note: Probably one of the most odd concoction of searches and websites to put this post together, including: “Holy Batman Phrases” and this site, “Social Media is Quirky,” “Google Head Honchos,” “How to Haiku” (at first glance, I was dubious Mayer’s Tweet was a real haiku…had to be certain), and “Die Press Release Die!”

Re-Engaging Engagement, or How Many Different Ways Can We Use the Word Engagement?

29 07 2011

Have you heard? We’re in the Age of Engage. Like the 95% of us who can’t help but stare at an accident on a freeway, pull out the smart phone and snap a picture, I think we’re all wide-eyed, deer in the headlights for “engagement”.  The problem is, I’m not sure we really know what we’re looking at. While Marketers have their eyes glued to the list of “friends” and “followers” their campaign has earned and public relations practitioners are starry-eyed at comments and forwards, I think we’re all missing the mark because we’re only looking at the results.

Don’t get me wrong, results are quintessential. It’s not the focus on results that’s the problem, it’s the singular focus on results that’s the problem…it’s spawning tunnel vision. Looking solely at the results leads to blind validation of the composite of what we’re doing, lumping what might not be working with what is. In the end, what we’re left with is the Dilbert-esque proclamation: “We must have done something right, so whatever we’re doing, keep doing it” when we have no idea what it is we’re even doing.

The point of engagement (and its value) is in the process. Let me illustrate with, what I consider, is a particularly “engaging” campaign.

Late last year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) relaunched as a social media site, and has moved its online efforts from a “request more information” model to a “get to know us and join us” model. used to be a site for answering questions about the Church’s beliefs, and while it still serves that purpose, it is now a site to connect. Call it a religious facebook. Now it’s a place where hundreds of Church Members create a profile and provide their unique viewpoint on the purpose of life and their beliefs in the Church, echoing the late Church Leader, Gordon B. Hinckley, who once told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes that, and I paraphrase here, the Church wanted to people to bring their beliefs with them and see how the LDS viewpoint added to what they already believed.

The Marketing Director of the Church told me that the site was to facilitate the connection between the Church and potential members by giving the mic, so to speak, to the members, with whom it would be easier to relate and more effective to create and build a relationship. To that end, the Church has highlighted dozens of member profiles with videos that accompany the member profile to paint a broad picture of the diversity within the Church. Here’s an example:

And the Church hasn’t stopped there, tapping the talents of the increasingly common digital acumen among online users to build even more “engagement”. For years, the Church has been known, at least inside its chapel doors, for feel-good stories put to video, with the occasional tear-jerker and the famous 8-cow wife. Today, they’ve moved passed that and have launched to tap the digital acumen of its own members and engage them to make their own stories. This subsection of the Church’s main site is dedicated to assisting members to create their own videos, including providing images and b-roll for video production, and of course, the occasional contest and call for videos to light the proverbial fire.

In short, the brilliance of the campaign is in the focus on the process of engagement–they’re eliciting involvement and therein lies the digital magic of the buzzword we have come to love and overuse.

So, I return to the beginning. We’re all talking about engagement without being clear on all that it stands for. Yes, it’s results. Yes it’s “followers” “frienders” “sharing” “tweeting” etc…but that’s the fruit. Engagement is actually in the process. It’s a concept of participation and involvement that yields the results that marketing and communication management has set its sights on. If engagement is participation, even partnership, then yes, engagement is also risky, because it means yielding part of your communication control over to people who may have little to no interest in representing it well. But then again, that’s happening whether you intend it to be or not.

Social Capital for Social Good

10 11 2010

Social capital has been our main topic of conversation in my Digital PR and Advertising class at the University of Houston. The notion that an organization can assess communication efforts based on the resources available through social connections (particularly facilitated through digital and social media), is both an intriguing concept and one that should stretch organizational strategy beyond the normal harvesting of customer databases, or even Facebook followers and Twits. The real power of social capital is what is possible by tapping into that social capital, preferably for both organizational and societal benefit.  New England rock banders, Guster, may have discovered this spontaneously, when they harnessed the power of their social capital in a recent contest. The story goes, that they invited fans to produce their own videos for each of their 12 songs on their new EP Easy Wonderful, and one lucky fan video for each song would be chosen and highlighted on their site (Social Capital Recap: Access your followers/fans? CHECK. Get them to do something for you? CHECK. Get them to do something that builds your reputation? keep reading).

The videos produced included the usual cadre of interesting images, abstract stories, and quirky cinematography (including one video that had one poor bloke being pelted by paint-filled balloons). But one video, in particular, gave Guster more than just a quirky video credit. Check it out:

4 strangers, helping more strangers, and the giving goes viral, as the companies involved paid it forward after they heard what the pizza and flowers were for. Rather than social capital for organizational good, this is social capital for  social good, and it’s something that’s infectious, if not serendipitous (in this case).

Fox 26 News Feature: Mythbusters

27 07 2010

Fox 26 News in Houston interviewed me for a story on the Houston Independent School District’s new web feature labeled “Mythbusters”–in which they address the “rumors” circulating the school district.

Not a bad report, though, I will say that I had offered positive advice as well as the constructive criticism that they featured in the report. In fact, it sounded quite a bit more negative than I explained it. I guess that whole “the media is unbiased” thing has gone out the window?

The point I discussed with the reporter was that too many organizations see the internet as a place to promote, and this is problematic, because internet audiences see it as a place to get correct information (the “if it’s printed it must be true” perspective). This creates a problem for organizations like HISD, who 1) choose the topic to be discussed, 2) do not provide a place for feedback or interaction on their site about the issues, and, 3) perhaps worst of all, label the issues as “myths” from the get go. Frankly, it’s not a very symmetrical relationship they’re trying to create.

On the flip-side, the bias in reporting can’t be ignored either, and I was disappointed in the obvious negative slant the piece had. The way it was produced, HISD was the obvious bad guy. It would have been nice to get some opinions of teachers in the school district or others involved.

Olympic Branding? What’s the Point

20 05 2010

Could we expect anything less from the country that brought us Poobah and Teletubbies?

Is this what Olympic branding has come down to? And what does it say that the mascots are “created” by someone who builds them out back in an old shed and who come to life by the power of magical rainbows, and who are good at copying everything they see?

Joking aside about the 2012 London Games Mascots…can we take a step back and ask ourselves: Why? Why mascots?  There have been very few good mascots in the history of sports. And by my count, most of them have gotten their praise by what they do rather than what they look like or their mystical background (i.e. an old man who retires, builds grandkids some tinker toys, and add in a rainbow and voila, the London Games mascots are born!). Take the San Diego Chicken for example:

Or the Phoenix Suns Gorilla

But outside of a select few entertaining mascots, most are questionable at best. What’s their purpose? Good mascots take attention AWAY from the game. For some sporting events, that’s good. If you’re a Houston Astros fan or a Los Angeles Clippers afficionado you’ve got to have entertainment somehow, right? But for good sporting events, what’s the point? Sure, marketers will say: It’s for branding. Good recognizable images are memorable, and memorable = good branding = good marketing.

But I have to raise the question: Why do we need to brand every Olympic games? Branding just for branding’s sake isn’t a strategy. And don’t we have the rings already anyway? The branding has been done, and frankly, I can’t imagine that any spectacular mascot is going to improve what’s already recognized as one of the most visible sporting events in the world. I mean: do we ever see anything similar in other world events? The World Cup every four years has no mascot that I know of. The worldwide economic summit in Geneva? Nope. (Though, who says economics couldn’t use a little extra fun in them?).

For once, I’d like to see a team (or Olympic Host country) just say “no” to mascots. Otherwise, it’s an ongoing joke we keep renewing every four years.

The New Case for Publicity Stunts

19 05 2010

I think many of us have been conditioned to believe that publicity stunts are cheap parlor tricks, something superficial meant to get a surface-level response that fails to build a true mutually beneficial relationship with an organization’s stakeholders. Publicity stunts may get a bad rep because they’re a hallmark of the dreaded Press Agentry model of public relations (in which the media is used to unfairly push an organization’s agenda on the public).

And while this may be true–planning an event just to get media coverage and the consequential attention it garners is a superficial strategy–new media opens up a new realm of value for publicity-engendering activities. Take this reenactment of Ghostbusters at the New York Public Library.

This charade has publicity stunt all over it…but it arguably has more sincerity and true entertainment value than traditional publicity stunts. New media technology has created a new, original venue for entertainment. The diverse array of entertainment opportunities has created not only more opportunities for attention, but arguably more opportunities for org-public relationship-building. A “stunt” like this stands to build an emotional connection between the public and the NYPL, through a recognition of the library’s significance in cinema. In this way, the NYPL and publics who watch (or experience first hand) this reenactment share a connection built around entertainment, further engendering a relational connection.

New media’s influence on public relations, and in this case, it’s opportunities it provides for building relationships around entertainment, should be welcomed, rather than written off as cheap parlor tricks.

Now, for a follow-up, I’d like to see the Library employ symmetrical book stacking “Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947″…because no human being would stack books like this.