How do you organize a successful flash mob from scratch?
It’s a challenge every day to think about how the things you’ve experienced might be valuable to other people. Tuesday I spoke to KU Assistant Professor Hyunjin Seo‘s Social Media in Strategic Communication class about social media monitoring and measurement, but up until a couple hours before the class started, I had forgotten why I had been booked to speak there in the first place. The class is organizing a flash mob to raise awareness for a United Nations campaign (they even got mentioned by UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon on Monday!), and I was there as a “flash mob expert.” Ha! When Dr. Seo realized I worked for Spiral16, a social media monitoring company, my role was greatly expanded. But the original intent was for me to give advice on organizing a successful flash mob.
I don’t feel like an expert by any means, but last year I organized a flash mob that went really well and got a lot of coverage, both mainstream press and online. Using my experience with that, I came up with a 10-step guide on how to organize a flash mob. Here goes:
1. Have a clear-cut goal. Mine was easy. U.S. Air Guitar, the organization tasked with finding the nation’s best air guitarists all over the country, was coming to Kansas City and I was trying to raise awareness about the show/competition. Not only did I want to get a bigger crowd to attend the event the following week in Kansas City, but I wanted to put the concept of competitive air guitar, a decidedly underground sport, on the map in KC. To reach that goal, I wanted a big crowd to witness the event and as much coverage as possible. Because of the proliferation of cameras these days, flash mobs ensure that digital assets will be created by others and likely uploaded to YouTube and spread all over the web. Awesome.
2. Create a compelling act that supports your goal. Use humor, have entertainment value. This was easy, because air guitar is weird. It has this go-for-broke naked quality that immediately provokes a reaction from people, negative or positive. Funny? Check. Entertaining? On some level, yes — it’s different for everybody — so, check. Being entertaining or strange in some way is key to your flash mob being a success. If it’s not something people are going to talk about or spread links about, it won’t be successful.
3. Book a date, location with a built-in crowd. This took awhile for me to formulate. I’d been thinking about this for months, and at first thought that the local City Market would be a good place for a spontaneous air guitar flash mob to erupt. I cased the market one afternoon and found the layout and PA system to be problematic. Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me later on: First Fridays is a monthly art event in the Crossroads Arts District where huge throngs of people walk around drinking and visiting art galleries and watching live music. It was the perfect crowd for air guitar — which I look at as performance art, a humbling and joyous display of ridiculousness that can be taken ironically or non-ironically, tongue-in-cheek or dead serious. When I heard that the traveling art show experiment America Now and Here was going to opening that night, I knew there would be an even bigger crowd. Bonus!
4. Scout location, figure out performance logistics. I can’t stress this enough, because it backfired on me (See #9). All kinds of things can go wrong when you are planning a spontaneous event in a public place. I walked around the Crossroads Arts District on two separate First Fridays to try to find the exact spot and time of night that the most people would be organically gathered. Even though this flash mob was going to be a surprise, I needed a power source to plug a PA into. After asking a couple of art galleries, I finally got someone in charge at one who said yes, we could run an extension cord through their window, borrow some power, and perform in the parking lot next to them. Perfect!
5. Recruit. Start with people you know. On social media sites, be cognizant of how public/private your invite needs to be. I used Facebook to recruit the few local air guitarists that I know and asked them to spread the word to their friends. I created a public event page on Facebook that anyone could invite people to, but strategically didn’t include the exact location or the words “flash mob.” This way if you RSVP’ed to the event and it showed up on your Facebook page, it said you were attending “Spontaneous Gathering of Air Guitar Insanity in a Public Place,” instead of “Flash Mob at First Friday,” which would undermine the whole surprise element of the flash mob. They could know more, of course, once they clicked on the event page, but that meant they were at least interested …
6. Hit up firmly established, like-minded groups and give them a firm grasp of your concept. I identified two groups of people that I thought might be interested in an air guitar flash mob: Local music scenesters and members of the Social Media Club of Kansas City. I reached out to my network of local music fans and musicians via the Facebook event page, and some of the key members of the SMCKC organization. I decided to sacrifice some of the surprise element in order to recruit more performers, so I posted “who wants to help?” pleas on the SMCKC Group Facebook Page and my brief announcement at a monthly breakfast meeting a month before made the SMCKC blog, which was also included in a blog that goes out the membership. Interesting statistic: Most non-air guitar participants ended up being outliers: friends of friends who saw a flash mob was happening (which didn’t need a ton of choreography or finely-honed skill) and wanted to be a part of it!
7. Distribute song and find a centrally located space to practice. I edited together five rock tunes in about four minutes and a found a marketing agency just a couple blocks away from where we would perform. Not only were they nice enough to let us practice there after hours, they also said they’d loan us their PA for the performance. (Thanks again, Mark!) I uploaded the edit to YouTube and made it a video only accessible if you had the actual URL. I distributed the link to the group via Facebook, and asked them what times would be better for practice. I scheduled two practices — one after work on a weekday and one on the weekend — to try to get the most people possible. I ended up doing three total.
8. Be willing to change/adapt, make video for those who can’t attend practice. Attendance for practices varied, as did “skill levels” of the air guitarists to sync up to each other and the song. (I maintain that air guitar is pure expression and there’s no right or wrong way to do it, but for our purposes, there were certain marks I wanted everybody to hit.) I adapted the routine to the first group of attendees, we uploaded a highlight-reel practice video, and everybody said they would have trouble remembering the moves. So it was decided that we would video the final run-through at the next practice for people to remember and practice at home, and for those who still hadn’t attended. (We even had some people show up at the flash mob who hadn’t come to any of the three practices — and they did great!) I uploaded that video (accessed only by having the URL) and sent it out via Facebook.
9. Double check your location/logistics. I cannot stress this enough because I didn’t do it, and it almost gave me a heart attack just hours before the scheduled time. We arrived at the art gallery two hours early, only to find that the owner we got permission from wasn’t there and that the entire gallery had been taken over by crew members from America Now and Here. This meant that the very people I was trying to keep this a secret from were the people I now needed to ask permission to use their power supply! I went into scramble mode just one hour before the PA was scheduled to arrive and asked a couple of non-ANHKC galleries, getting nos. Finally, I stumbled into the International School of Professional Bartending in Kansas City, which was right on the corner. I interrupted a business meeting — can you believe it? — and the owner thought it was a hilarious idea and gladly let us plug into their garage! Again, the goodwill of people wanting to help out with a crazy flash mob trumps all!
The calm before the storm - some of us met one hour before showtime for some liquid courage!
10. Call/email the press and prominent social media peeps and bloggers. I’m putting this last because its the last thing I did, but I had my strategy mapped out way beforehand. I made a list of all the local media outlets (print, online, TV) and sent emails “the week of” telling them something crazy was going to happen at First Fridays at this specific time. I think I even teased the words “flash mob,” because those two words move mountains for the local media. Then I followed up with another email and phone calls the day before/day of the event. The SMCKC people and local bloggers were all reminded just that morning (perfect timing!) at the monthly breakfast where I made a final announcement, so it was fresh in their minds. Everyone was mobilized. I also contacted a friend with a three-person pro camera crew to capture the performance from multiple angles, so we would have a great-quality video people that could search easily and could be easily embedded. This served as the hub of all social activity for the flash mob.
Confirm press. Pull your hair out. Perform. Disperse. Celebrate. This is pretty much the order things went that day. I was contacting press all day, confirming location and time. I got to the location early enough to find a new power outlet and set up the PA. We met an hour early at a local bar to calm the nerves, and headed down to the location. It went off without a hitch! Tons of bystanders captured video, two local TV crews were there, and I even got interviewed by the ANHKC people, who were very cool and excited that we staged some spontaneous performance art right smack dab in the middle of their event! They even said the video they shot would be a part of their permanent exhibit. When the song ended, we dispersed … to a place with drinks! Finished product below:
Last but not least, there was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and community that grew up around the flash mob, and many of the people I got to know during that have remained great friends. I hope this helps you with your flash mob. If you read this and you do one of your own, let me know! Leave some comments/links below.
Official Kansas City Air Guitar – Tony’s Kansas City
Air Guitar Players Invade First Friday – Kansas City News Story – KCTV Kansas City (video already gone)
Air Guitar Flash Mob – FOX4 (video already gone)
Air Guitar Flash Mob in the Crossroads – Pitch slideshow
World’s Largest Air Guitar Flash Mob in Kansas City – Brainzooming blog
KC First Fridays Air Guitar Flash Mob YouTube video
KC First Fridays air guitar flash mob YouTube video
Mean Melin, USAG flash mob million-dollar art project (video) – US Air Guitar blog
Average Jane – KC blog