By Nathan Rudyk

It was fantastic, i.e., "incredibly great", to once more fill up all three rows of our minivan this weekend as our daughter Stephanie returned home mid-way through her first term at Queen's University. It was also fantastic, i.e., "odd and remarkable" to learn about last Tuesday's flash mob at her rez, where 700-plus students, linked via Facebook, spontaneously stood up in Leonard Hall cafeteria at 6:30PM to sing "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys.

The flash mob was concieved by "Q-Sauce", or Queen's Students Assembling United Collective Enthusiasm. All timing and communication regarding the flash mob was coordinated via Facebook less than 24 hours prior to the event. Students were asked not to pass it on other than by Facebook. Just prior to the flash mob's activation, 300-plus responded via Facebook that they were "attending" while nearly 400 said "maybe attending". In fact, just about everyone who heard about it participated. Stephanie said there were so many people in the caf there weren't enough seats. And as you can see in the YouTube vid many students ended up standing on their chairs as they sang. Herewith, the Q-Sauce guidelines as published on Facebook:

TONIGHT at exactly 6:30 PM at Leonard Cafeteria....
We will get up on our chairs, and we will sing, with all of our hearts, the ENTIRETY of The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way".
If you don't know the lyrics, you have UNTIL TONIGHT to learn the song.
Nobody will start the sing-a-long, everyone will one.
You cannot discuss project Sing-A-Long to anyone outside of this group. You can only invite people in via Facebook.
No public conversation about project sing-a-long may take place.
It will simply begin.
After the song is over, continue eating.
See you TONIGHT, warm up your voices.

"So what!", you say. "Wacky students ..." Er, nope. Think about what happened there. Think about your brand.

Armed with social networking sites like Facebook, that are in turn linked directly to smartphone apps students carry with them 24/7 on their iPhones, Blackerrys and Droid phones, social-network savvy consumers, the ones coming out of colleges and universities in four years or less, can, and will:

a) spontaneously sing your praises (hopefully with something better than Back Street Boys :)

b) or, trash your stock/association's reputation/political party standing by disrupting your carefully scripted Annual General Meeting

c) or, protest a product pricing/policy decision they don't like by showing up on your head office steps by the hundreds or even thousands with the (hyper-network-enabled) media in tow

This isn't one of those oh-so-yesterday online phenomena limited to the nether regions of the blogosphere that then finds its way into mainstream media over a number of days/weeks/months. This is hundreds or thousands of people acting in near-real-time, with life-sized massed physical presence, on what they believe is right or wrong about what your organization's doing for or "to" them, as they see it. 

What can you do about it? Nothing at all if you're not on top of the social networking scene. And even if you are, you're going to have to morph corporate communications and/or product messaging strategy and/or senior executive response at the speed of text messaging. Stilted, stunned or insincere posturing in the face(book) of the networked consumer era is going to lead to certain grief.

Assuming your communications team does devote resources to understanding social networking, what can they do to promote vs. defend the brand? Inspired by a flash mob kick-off to Oprah's 24th season kick-off party that drew 21,000 people plus more than 2 million views on YouTube, last Saturday mall marketers organized some 2,000 people in Davidson, North Carolina to form a flash mob in celebration of the mall's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Have a look. That's one happy mob, and I bet after they celebrated lots walked inside to buy a bunch of stuff. Smart.

If you've got all this sorted out, excellent. If the hair on the nape of your neck is tingling because you think you need to prepare for this certain networked consumer/stakeholder future, our team would be happy to help yours.

p.s. If you watch till the end of the Queen's YouTube vid you'll wonder what occurs at the end of the Back Street boys song ... it's a "fighting anthem", called Oil Thigh, that Queen's students seem to sing whenever they're happy. Hey, I went to the University of Waterloo, so I guess I have to believe that explanation :)

(Nathan Rudyk is President and CEO with market2world communications inc., Ottawa, Canada's tech PR and product marketing agency.)