As promised to my friend and colleague Bryan Person, something of a road map for Bum Rush the Charts and similar flash-mob campaigns. First, something to think about via the HBR Ideacast - the idea of a forest fire. Campaigns can become word of mouth sensations just like a forest fire. If the forest is wet, matches won't do the job. If the forest is bone dry, even the tiniest spark can create a conflagration to rival the fires of Hell itself.
Likewise, when planning a word of mouth campaign, assess the ground. Is it dry, ready for even the slightest spark to start a blaze, or will you be waging an uphill battle? I'd venture to say that Bum Rush the Charts tapped into the general anti-RIAA, anti-music industry sentiment especially virulent in the world of podcasting, but much more widespread. The ground was ripe for a fire, and the campaign would have likely been successful to a greater or lesser degree no matter who was in charge of it.
That raises an additional question: how long before the forest regrows, dries, and is ready for another fire? Some people are calling out for a second run immediately, but my intuitive sense is that, just as after a forest fire, the tinder has been spent and regrowth needs to take place, even if just for the sake of another fire.
That said, let's look at the components to this forest fire - spark, tinder, dry ground, high winds, and no firefighters. The spark was Mark Nemcoff and Mike Yusi's iTunes takeover announcement on the February 16, 2007 episode of Pacific Coast Hellway. This was the burst of energy that got it all started. Whatever else BRTC became as it evolved and grew, it started with genuine passion and energy from its founders.
The tinder was my role in the process, taking the spark and the first flames and finding a way to add to them, a way to make the fire hotter. I did not start the fire, but the addition of a charitable outlet made the initial fire burn hotter and made it easier to catch. If you were on the fence about whether to support the campaign, the tinder might have pushed you over. If you were already passionate about the campaign, this turned the dial up to 11.
We've covered the dry ground - the recording industry's inability to communicate effectively with its customers or treat them as anything except potential criminals.
Next came the high winds. A fire can burn hot and bright, but without wind, it may stay localized. What happened with Bum Rush the Charts was simply this: an awful lot of people - Connectors - picked up the cause and spread the fire to their audiences, spread the fire by many different vehicles. Press releases, emails, IMs, Twitter, blog posts, podcasts, word of mouth at the checkout line - the new media community took the flames and added high winds to spread the fire quickly and furiously. Before long, the blaze had spread worldwide, and in some places burned even hotter and brighter than in its birthplace. This step was the most crucial - spreading the fire far and wide ensured that even in places where it might have flagged, the overall energy and momentum kept increasing.
The last factor was the lack of firefighters. Absolutely, there were negative comments and negative momentum, particularly in social news outlets, but this did little to nothing to dampen the blazes already burning. The only thing that brought the fire to an end was running out of fuel, having reached its maximum range, and by the time that limit was reached, the campaign had achieved some incredible results.
So, what's the road map of this analogy? Passion has to start the fire in a place favorable and receptive to starting the fire. Ideally, you find ways to magnify the scope and appeal of your social campaign, and then once done, you set it free, letting others take ownership of it and spreading it to their audiences. Finally, you build enough momentum that even naysayers are overwhelmed.
If you're missing any one of these ingredients, you may not get the results you want. What would make future movements even more successful? Well, add to the steps here. Instead of one spark to start the fire, many sparks - get community involvement early on, and you'll have that many more blazes. Give lots of tinder from different sources to make the fires insanely hot. Help others find a way to plug in their altruistic or community-focused projects to increase the power of the benefit. Give the winds more than just hot air - give them gasoline and matches, too! Help fire spreaders become fire starters, not just relying on word of mouth already existing, but give them the tools and the power to start or enhance fires. Get things burning so hot that firefighters don't even attempt to step in - they just quarantine the area and wait for the fire to burn out.