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Is mob psychology the next big marketing thing?

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Surely you’ve all seen flash mobs, the brainchild of Bill Wasik, Wired Magazine’s senior editor. It started as a joke. He wanted to mock mob psychology: What if a mob of people, brought together via technology, all did something random?

More importantly, why would they?

The answer seems to be that everyone wants to be a part of the next Big Thing.

Getting a large, widely dispersed group of people motivated to be part of the next Big Thing is a marketer’s dream. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things. . . .”

But Machiavelli never envisioned 21st-century technology, nor did he imagine the field of mob psychology.

That idea was the brainchild of Edward Bernays (nephew to Sigmund Freud) who is considered the father of public relations. Cobbling together the ideas from numerous psychologists of the time, Bernays took the idea of propaganda to a new level when he came to realize that people behave differently in a crowd.

The original idea of crowd theory or mob psychology is that when people get together in large groups, the individuals begin to sublimate their own ideas for that of the crowd. The collective subconscious coalesces around a common feeling. Suddenly the new order of things is not so difficult to carry out.

But there is another concept of crowd theory. Instead of a harmonic resonance developing in a crowd, the crowd itself is formed by likeminded individuals getting together. I can think of no better example of this than the “Anthrocon” convention that took place in Pittsburgh last month.

What is Anthrocon? I thought you’d never ask.

Anthrocon is the world's largest convention for those fascinated with anthropomorphics, which are humanlike animal characters. According to their website, “We are a collection of artists, animators, writers, costumers, puppeteers and just everyday fans who enjoy cartoon animals and their kin.”

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

For three days the Steel City was overrun by people in Chuck E. Cheese-esque costumes. I’m waiting for that keynote to be posted on YouTube.

With the advent of the Internet, these like-minded crowds can gather virtually.

So now we’ve come full circle. Is there such a thing as a virtual mob? Is it actually a mob if the individual members are in discrete locations, even if they all act in concert?

Folks at the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab are working on just such a concept. “The purpose of the Persuasive Technology Lab is to create insight into how computing products, from websites to mobile phone software, can be designed to change people’s beliefs and behaviors.”

Using a science they’ve dubbed “captology” they’re trying to modify behavior. For now, their cause seems to be noble. They’re trying to get everyone to live a healthier lifestyle. They envision a mob of people all driven to eat their veggies.

Changing people’s beliefs and behaviors? Now that would get any marketer to sit up and pay attention.

Imagine a virtual crowd of widget manufacturers all in a unified chorus demanding your widget fasteners. Theoretically, b-to-b marketers would be able to reach out to any subset of customers to get them to adopt a mob behavior. Theoretically, our prospects would be driven to pick up the phone and ask for a sales call. Theoretically that would happen, if we could just get those discrete individuals to act in concert.

Now that really would be the next Big Thing.

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