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.

The Art of Viral

7 05 2010

Word of mouth. Viral video. Buzz. Marketing colloquialisms today sound like a chronic illness. Fact is, average marketers don’t seem to get the art of online marketing. Most seem to think that good e-marketing is putting an ad online for people to print, or texting a coupon to someone’s smart phone. By extension, an online video is just a 10 second snippet of a TV commercial.  The problem with this perspective is it’s audience-negligent. No one wants to watch a TV commercial online, especially if they’re just going to TIVO right past it…no matter how funny it might be. No, online videos are a creation unto themselves. They’re somewhere between TV show and advertisement. In fact, a good online video differentiates itself from an advertisement based on 4 key features:

1. It’s narrative. This isn’t rocket science: People like stories. People who like stories like to forward stories. People who receive forwarded stories in turn forward the stories. And so on.

2. It’s different and edgy. A viral video is a unique media creation, something that you wouldn’t see on TV. It’s humor, presentation, and delivery are unexpected and even edgy. Unfortunately, many marketers translate this into a liberal presentation of questionable content that can’t be shown on television. This perspective misses the mark, and, frankly, it’s overdone. A viral video is uniquely interesting, in the same way The Office was uniquely funny when it first aired on NBC. It redefines what entertainment is and can be.

3. It’s time-sensitive. Many people say that a viral video should be 30 seconds to a minute. But I say, “It depends”. Generally, if you can get a good entertaining story in 30 seconds or less, then do it. The point: be concise. Don’t go over, don’t go under.

4. It’s cultural. I don’t mean that a viral video should be a Discovery-channel exposition of the mores of a society. No, a viral video is culturally relevant, pointing out or even poking fun at the underlying standard operating procedures that often go unnoticed or under-recognized in society. In this way, viral videos may even be irreverent. To this point, one may say that a viral video is satirical, and I completely agree. Think David Letterman and Rupert Jee.  Heck, think Mark Twain. He would be the virtual Bull in a China Shop if he lived a century and a half later.

Here’s a video that hits all 4 principles of a good viral video:

Color Me Facebook

8 01 2010

Have you been seeing colors on Facebook? Chances are, in the last few days, you’ve seen a female friend post a status change with a single word: white, tan, pink, bright blue! Chances are, some of these posts have been unnerving, as you probably feel left out of the loop on this enigmatic code of colors  (if you’re male, that’s the point).

I’ll put you out of your misery: The Facebook color posts are part of an intriguing campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. Women post the color of the most relevant undergarment to breast cancer currently “on their person”.

Though the origins of the campaign may be unkown, one thing is certain: within days, it has spread like wild firewalls around the virtual Facebook world, evidenced by a recent post that appeared on my Facebook page:

Buddy the Elf: Black with Gold Mickey Mouse Heads.

Critics claim this crisis of color does nothing to create awareness for breast cancer, but only drives people who aren’t in on it crazy (read: guys). But I think it works on three levels

1. Backdoor Awareness: The color campaign works because it feeds into that inner monster, curiosity. It’s genius because it effectively captures our curiosity by teasing us to search for something that we might not have otherwise: breast cancer awareness. Let’s face it, though it may be one of the most serious and critical issues in our society, most people aren’t going to go online today and type in the search term breast cancer unless they’ve experienced a recent, intimate encounter with its effects. But people are more likely to be so unnerved about being out of the loop that they’ll go online and search “facebook color  posts”. This alternative entrance into the topic of breast cancer, then, serves as a backdoor to the issue for people who would otherwise not have given it much thought…and isn’t that the audience that breast cancer advocates are most interested in reaching?

2. Creating an In-Crowd Community. Let’s state the obvious for a minute: this color thing has spread like wildfire in only a matter of days (can you think of any offline campaign that has been able to do that?).  Why? Because it joined people into a “secret” (at least it’s supposed to be) club where they felt special to be a part of something “cool”. Sure, it’s high school, but it works. Little by little, facebookers who read the posts wonder what it is, want to be involved, and join the club by doing one simple thing: posting a representative color of a particularly relevant undergarment they’re currently wearing. Which leads me to the third level…

3. Pure Ease. What’s the easiest and most efficient way to get people thinking and talking about breast cancer? Hold a fund raiser where to be involved individuals have to donate money? How about a walk-a-thon, or some other athletic event that requires people to put miles into their commitment to the cause, literally? Or…how about encouraging people to post a color on their facebook page, which requires 1. no time and 2. no effort? Bingo. Color posting is a sickeningly easy way to get involved. In fact, you don’t even have to talk about your feelings, emotions, and tragedies that might be associated with breast cancer. You just have to post a color.

So…the facebook color post phenomenon raising breast cancer awareness is ingenius, and I laud its ability to get people involved in such an important cause in such an easy way…

That is…until my mom posts a color.

Cult-Celebrity Branding: A lesson from the NBA

9 04 2009

Any theorynpractice regulars will know of my bias towards covering the NBA on this blog (I’m sorry, it’s just fun to pull out public relations learnings from stuff that happens in the NBA, for good or for bad). This one I couldn’t help but bring out. And I’ll start with a question:

How do you build a cult-celebrity inducing brand? 

Tapping into pop culture and gaining a following that transcends mere consumer favoritism is arguably the Holy Grail for many companies.  In fact, there have been a slew of books written about it, and yet, it’s anything but an exact science.

The fact of the matter is, it may very well be serendipitous, a combination of being in the right place at the right time, and viewed by the right people–especially if they’re keen on satire…Today’s example comes from, where else?, the Los Angeles Lakers, where a relatively under-known player has garnered some major attention. Sasha Vujajic, from Slovenia, is a 3 point specialist for the Lakers, who is often fondly referred to as “The Machine”. The nickname has a fuzzy origin, either initiated by Kobe Bryant, who said he’s a machine, or by Vujajic, himself, who said he shoots like a machine. One Laker fan decided to run with it, and has created a buzz-worthy set of videos, including a game vlog built around The Machine character.

Now, the video is a crude representation of Sasha, and could even be considered offensive. Though, taken in fun, it could also be considered invaluable publicity for the Lakers. Vujajic’s response, though somewhat ambivalent (see video below), may be a valuable lesson for other companies that may find their brand interpreted perhaps incorrectly in the spotlight.

The Lesson:  Run with it (with in reason). Celebrity and popularity, unfortunately, are up to the audience, and, therefore sharing brand building with fans, customers, etc., may be essential in building a cult brand, even if it doesn’t represent the company’s own intended image.

The First Annual Grunig Lecture

4 11 2008

I had the supreme opportunity to attend the Univ. of MD’s first annual Grunig Lecture this past Thursday. This inaugural event in what is to be an ongoing series at UMD was appropriately themed around the timely-issue of public relations and social media.

A few tidbits I found particularly interesting:

  • First, a little shameless self-promotion. Following the introductory hour and half of round-table discussions, a few of my students approached me all agast because what I had been saying for the last few months (that the future of PR is social media, and their success in the field will depend greatly on how well they can manage that space) was right on target. What can I say? It’s nice to be validated in your opinion, even if it takes someone else (or even two or three someone elses) to prove it to your students.
  • I enjoyed an hour long round-table discussion from Ogilvy’s Online Strategy guru John Stauffer.  I found it particularly interesting how focused Ogilvy is on bringing clients into the online space using digital points and metrics as evaluation. I think we’re seeing an unprecedented era in public relations in which practice is led by measurement. And this is most likely because it CAN be.  More interesting than how beneficial social media is for enhancing public relations’ reach and relationship-building with publics is the conversation around just how much easier social media makes it to evaluate public relations.  And I think that web visits, page ranks, and unique views are just the tip of the Iceberg here.
  • On a side note: I was honored to be interviewed by John for the Ogilvy blog, and trusting that my answers to his questions were somewhat intelligible, I’ll be posting a link to the blog once it’s up.
  • Richard Edelman, the CEO of the agency that bears his name, was the keynote speaker. His remarks were engaging, as he sought to show how social media is redefining PR’s role in the organization. He introduced a public engagement model of public relations which I’ll discuss a little more extensively in an upcoming post.  He also made a bold declaration, saying that the future of public relations will be played out on SMS and mobile technology, more than it will be played out on blogs, Facebook, and other social media resources. I have to say that I had never considered that, but it makes perfect sense. If the drive for information is driven by immediacy, I can’t imagine any more immediate tool than an Apple 3G.