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  Guerilla Event Marketing—A Mob in a Flash   Guerilla Event Marketing—A Mob in a Flash  Jennifer Gidman  
Guerilla Event Marketing—A Mob in a Flash The choreographed dance, not surprisingly, was captured on film.

Spontaneous shimmying spurred on by commuting ennui? Not quite. The event was a brand-orchestrated flash mob, a gathering (usually precipitated by an elaborate set of e-mail instructions) of large numbers of people in a public place, where some preplanned event takes place to entertain, amuse or generate buzz and publicity for a well-known brand (in this case, T-Mobile). The mobile-phone company pulled off a similar Trafalgar Square sing-along three months later, attracting nearly 14,000 people.

T-Mobile isn’t the only company to employ viral marketing using a colossal street cast and the Internet to build brand awareness. One hundred leotard-clad young women danced in Piccadilly Circus to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” for Trident Unwrapped. And sunglass giant Ray-Ban staged its own guerrilla-marketing ploy in Manhattan, with “street teams” (decked out in Ray-Ban shades, naturally) standing and gazing skyward at a huge Ray-Ban building wrap.

Some companies have even merged their performing plebes with some high-profile talent. SKY HDTV commissioned supermodel Gisele Bündchen to flip through the TV channels in an airport lounge while more than 1,000 cast members “brought the TV to life.” And a clothing store on California’s Sunset Boulevard was suddenly overrun by hundreds of dancers wearing gold parachute pants and cutting a rug to “You Can’t Touch This” (an A&E mobile-marketing ploy to attract attention to its Hammertime documentary about rapper MC Hammer).

This viral marketing is a form of guerrilla advertising that not only directly touches its participants and the spectators who witness the event live, but also the viewership that subsequently gets a chance to view the event via e-mail, text messaging, podcasts, blogs, forums, social networking sites and other Internet resources. You know the drill: Your brother sends you a link to some YouTube video or Facebook group, and voilà—instant brand awareness that spreads like a California wildfire.

There are even websites dedicated to helping brands track how well their viral campaigns are doing. Visible Measures, for instance, offers a Viral Reach Database that collects data from more than 150 video-sharing destinations. It then generates stats on not only how many people have seen a video campaign (and how many times), but also on how they’ve interacted with it via comments, ratings and their own video responses.

Married to the Mob
The flash mob is said to have originated in 2003 with Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. For his first successful flash-mob attempt, Wasik blasted out a detailed instructional e-mail to a bunch of people. More than 100 willing participants then converged on the rug department at the flagship Macy’s store in Manhattan, where they gathered around a carpet and informed the salespeople that they all lived together in a warehouse and needed to search for a “love rug” as a group. Just as weird as their arrival was their sudden departure—after a burst of synchronized clapping, all the participants ran out of the building.

“I really just did them as a sort of social experiment,” says Wasik, whose book And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture debuted in June. “I wanted to see what would happen—how far would the e-mail spread? How many people would come? I had seen e-mails and webpages go viral, and I was really interested to see if I could make something like that happen myself.”

The fact that companies have tapped into flash-mob types of viral marketing to promote their brands doesn’t surprise Wasik. “It’s an image that captures what people find so exciting about the current information age: a group of strangers using technology to come together instantaneously,” he says. “It makes technology seem like the cure for loneliness and alienation. Of course, the irony is that sometimes our technology has the opposite effect: It lets us connect with more people, but at the expense of the depth of connection.”

Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere (a comedic performance-art group that proudly states on its site that it “causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places”) and author of the recently penned Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places with Improv Everywhere, isn’t surprised that some companies are using the flash-mob technique to promote their brands (Improv Everywhere itself doesn’t stage events that advertise specific brands).

“Anything that’s popular will eventually be co-opted by the advertising world,” Todd explains. “It’s usually just a matter of time. Brands see people getting excited about something, and their first thought is always, ‘How can we use this [phenomenon] to get people excited for our brand?’”

What Works, What Doesn’t
For such a public-event-driven campaign to work, you need to keep the element of surprise without alienating your audience—or your participants. “I think a mistake many brands make is not being transparent,” Todd says. “No one wants to show up to a flash-mob-type of event only to find out later on they were used as pawns in a marketing campaign. If you’re making a commercial for the Web, don’t kid yourself or anyone else involved that it’s anything else.”

Wasik agrees. “I suspect that flash-mob marketing will be more effective for [companies like] T-Mobile as an image in advertisements (where it gives that sense of instant togetherness) than it is as an actual viral campaign (i.e., creating mobs that try to market to participants),” he says. “People don’t want to feel like they’re shills in a corporate campaign, and once they realize that’s what you’re asking them to be, they won’t show up.”

Brands also have to weigh the risks in attracting participating players. “You look stupid if no one shows up,” Wasik explains. “But if you try to solve the problem by sweetening the deal somehow (book some attraction like a celebrity or band, for example, or give something free away), then you risk having people show up and cause problems. There have been almost no cases of ‘real’ flash mobs leading to violence or arrests, in part because the absurdity of the idea filters out the kinds of people who would start trouble.”

The psychology behind why flash mobs and viral campaigns work speaks to an individual’s inherent need to create—and connect. “I think people are excited about creating their own entertainment,” Todd says. And participating in an Improv Everywhere type of mission is an active form of entertainment: “You’re creating something with a group, rather than passively watching a movie, TV show, or sporting event,” Todd adds.

Wasik warns that brands can’t rely solely on these manufactured free-for-alls and their viral nature. “It speaks to our great dream about the Internet, and about technology in general—that it will cure our alienation and allow us to feel connected,” he says. “And sometimes it does. But other times it makes us just feel distracted and stretched thin—keeping up with 400 Facebook friends but never really feeling connected to them.”

In the end, even campaigns that thrive in the age of computers need to still rely on good old-fashioned human relationships. “It’s a matter of really thinking through what makes people press that ‘forward’ button,” Wasik says. “Jonah Peretti, a really smart thinker on viral phenomena who I profile in my book, says that things that go viral have a ‘social hook’—they speak to the specific relationships that we have with people in our lives. If you have friends you talk to about politics, you’ll send them viral media about politics; if you talk to them about dating, you’ll send them viral media about dating. We use these Internet memes as extensions of our conversations.”     



Jennifer Gidman lives and works in New York.

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