Flash mobs are a growing phenomenon that reflect the limitless power of social networking. While they began with like-minded people suddenly assembling to perform unusual acts such as dances, the concept has been adapted for cycling events, U2 concerts, political protests, and even promotional models such as the Groupon deal of the day.

Medical meeting planners may or may not wish to spark an actual flash mob, but to use social networking for more successful meetings, they should borrow from the rules that make flash mobs uniquely powerful.

Rule #1: Build a Network
Flash mobs aren’t actually created in a flash, but rather are built on a network that has been aggregated over time. Get an early start by sending teaser e-mails or social media feeds well in advance to build anticipation for your event. Include in your e-mails “invite a friend” and “click here to tweet” links that connect to your meeting Web site. The meeting Web site should include links to “like” the meeting on Facebook and connect with Linked In, Google+, Twitter, and selected blogs.

A blog focused on your meeting topic, with frequent posts by a prominent speaker, also can expand your network. Be sure it allows comments; provides GUI (graphical user interface) widgets; includes text, images, and links; and connects with other popular bloggers. Another good tactic: Sponsor a contest with a prize for “the 100th person to Like us on Facebook” or “the 50th person who re-tweets this message.”

Rule #2: Go Viral
Flash mobs are powered by connected groups of social communicators who rebroadcast and amplify key messages. To reach the critical mass of a flash mob, information about your meeting must ripple through social media channels like an earthquake that creates waves of aftershocks. Think about how you can tie your event to timely, high-interest content.

Humor can help. You can tweet, e-mail, or blog requests for the funniest responses to topics related to your meeting, such as “stupid stuff people say about ___.”

Also consider producing a video that spoofs the issues and personalities surrounding your meeting. This can range from an amateur video production to hiring talent such as the corporate communications team at the Second City comedy troupe. When dealing with certain areas of medical science and human health, humor may not be an easy fit, so proceed with tact and sensitivity.

Rule #3: Make It Personal
Despite all the layers of technology, flash mobs are based on personal relationships. All your social media communications also should be written as personal messages from prominent individuals to the recipient. Give your e-mails and tweets a casual, intimate voice; at all costs avoid sounding like they were drafted by a lawyer or committee. Because brevity is the norm in social media, don’t be afraid to use common shortcuts or casual wording such as “check this out.”

It pays for messages to come from a person whom your audience knows, respects, and even likes, so you need to be resourceful and insistent about whom to enlist for social media. Identify individuals who have pioneered important scientific advances, or who have a great human interest story.

Rule #4: Look for a Hook
The excitement of a flash mob is that it is unfolding live, right in front of you. Your campaign should not only start with hooks to hot topics, but should keep adding them, especially as you approach your meeting day. Your social media promotion should feature late-breaking information, and you should plan to stage a series of “this just in” announcements, such as the addition of a major new speaker or a sponsored reception.

Look for late-breaking industry and general news you can hook into your meeting; for example, “Dr. Linda Chavez will address how the PharmaCo merger will affect the M&A climate.” Flash mobs are often based on a last-minute rush over a long-smoldering topic— concentrate news-based blasts in the days and weeks just prior to your meeting.

Rule #5: Beware the Backlash!
The same forces that make flash mobs powerful can also make them destructive. Social media is replete with examples of campaigns gone awry, from malicious falsehoods about pop singer Justin Bieber to revealed truths about foodie Paula Deen. The fundamental dynamic of social media is to cede control of communications to people who are talking with each other. You hope to spark positive discussion, but there are also negatively inclined people, so be thoughtful in selecting topics and networks, and think about what your sponsors will tolerate, especially if you tap into controversial topics to give your social media campaign momentum.

Hook into topics only if you’re willing to listen to all viewpoints—you will want to connect with popular bloggers and tweeters, but be prepared for these third parties to speak their minds, which may not always coincide with your meeting’s story line. If you plan on building the reputation and popularity of a content expert for your meeting, you need to carefully vet the “celebrity” you’re helping create.

Brevity is the soul of social media, and just as tweets are limited to 140 characters, e-mails and blog entries should be kept short. This can present a challenge in the highly regulated medical industry, where full disclosure statements are the rule. You need to recognize that lengthy messages are a nonstarter in social media. Fortunately, guidelines on the use of social media in the medical industry, based on input from the FDA, have recently gained general acceptance.

By recognizing the organic rules that give flash mobs their unique power, meeting planners can tap into this phenomenon for more effective, exciting use of social networking.

Bill Cooney founded Evanston, Ill.–based MedPoint Communications Inc. in 1990, and he continues to lead the provider of digital medical communications and information services. Contact him at bill.cooney@medpt.com.

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Special Report: Social Media and Meetings