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The Flashing Of Fireflies

In July 2014, the world first took note that people were dumping buckets of ice on their heads and posting the resulting video on line to raise money to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. A total of 2.4 million tagged videos were posted to the internet, and the challenge raised US$115 million for research within six weeks (Steel, 2014). The recognition that the “Ice Bucket” Challenge is already almost two years old is fascinating for several reasons.

First, because like everything similar that came before it, it disappeared into the maw of the internet, being revived once, lamely, on its anniversary in 2015. Second, because despite the clear indicators about what made it successful, it has never been duplicated. Most shocking of all, however, is that marketers the world over are still dreaming of a worthy successor to it, as if that is the only way to define success in social media. We believe that in the vain search for the secret of viral alchemy, marketers have distracted themselves from the more quotidian but ultimately more valuable work of creating continuous virtuous stakeholder engagement across the entire spectrum of channels.


The effort to do this consistently and consistently well also demonstrates that it is not the shock of new creative ideas that correlates to business impact, but the ability to mine those creative ideas successfully over time and across different target audiences. Achieving this kind of success requires a fundamentally different approach to the process of designing and executing powerful marketing in the social era, a change to which many marketers can assent intellectually but which runs counter to more than a century of “campaigns” since Blatz Beer told young moms to keep a case at home because “obviously baby participates in its benefits” (Blatz, 2016).

Old patterns will not all die out overnight. Indeed, the revival in interest in Superbowl campaigns and the seemingly ineradicable seasonal sales campaigns in traditional media around Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays will probably always have their place (Snyder, 2016). What we believe needs to be questioned is the way in which social media campaigns are expected to conform to the same launch pattern. Months of feverish creative activity, legal and regulatory review, technological tinkering, perhaps a last-minute realization that the “app” needs to “play” on the latest messaging platform, finally ending in an anxious round of emails (sic) to friends and family to like/upvote/swipe whatever the new thing is.

Too often the mountain labors, to paraphrase Horace, and brings forth a mouse. There are many perfectly understandable reasons why the old model persists. Marketing careers are more often made on highly visible single initiatives than on continuous performance. Awards are designed to be won by successful campaigns, and there is something to be said for the importance of shining attention on truly breakthrough ideas in marketing communications. What this culture obscures, however, is both the challenge and the importance of continuous excellence in ongoing stakeholder engagement, something that rarely derives from each year’s one hit wonders.

We would like to suggest a different model for effective stakeholder engagement, one which can perhaps best be explained by resorting to an analogue from the natural world first identified by the Dutch scientist, Christiaan Huygens, in 1666 (Huygens, 1673). Huygens observed that when two pendulums are swinging in different rhythms on the same beam, they eventually synchronize with each other through what turns out to be micro-vibrations in the wood of the beam. This concept of “entrainment” is also present in a variety of different physical and biophysical environments from the way in which fireflies synchronize their flashing to human adaptation to the circadian rhythms of light and dark (Buck and Buck, 1978).


What this analogy suggests to us is that what marketers should be looking for is not the one gigantic moment when everyone douses themselves with ice but continuous evidence that they are on the same wave length (not to mix metaphors) as their targets. And the way to do this is constant experimentation across social media and other digital channels to find the right combination of utility and entertainment that defines the most successful kinds of marketing.

We may be “out of synch” at first and from time to time, but with the unique kinds of feedback social media delivers, we can always find our way into the right harmony with the target audiences. Through further continuous experimentation, we can evolve with these audiences as their needs and tastes and the cultural and technological environment changes.

It could be argued that these engagement experiments are vulnerable to the traditional arguments about the inability of the consumer to understand innovation or determine what he or she actually wants. Henry Ford’s apocryphal claim that, if asked, customers would have wanted a faster horse and buggy and the legendary Jobsian disdain for giving Apple customers what they asked for would seem to support those arguments (Burlingham, 1989). We do not believe this to be the case in social media for the simple reason that the social/digital space that we currently inhabit provides too many ways both to get specific utilitarian feedback and to engage with consumers to listen to their dreams. In fact, we believe that the best social media/digital “campaigns” do both of these things in a highly effective manner.

Here are the four characteristics of social engagement and influence that we think make a critical difference. They are not all glamorous, but they make the difference between the flash-in-the-pan app launch and enduring impact. They are:

1. continuous beta;

2. co-ownership;

3. room for error; and

4. convenor-ship

This is excerpted from the full article. Click on the link to the journal below.

“The Flashing of Fireflies” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 37 Issue: 3, 2016 pp.52 – 56, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.

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