When most of us think of flash mobs, you can’t help but get a little warm and fuzzy thinking about how so many people have organized such a coordinated production. Sure it’s to build a brand, but it’s fun too, right? Unfortunately, a dark side has been revealed to this otherwise innocent trend. This memorable marketing buzz strategy used by businesses is now also being used in a variety of less traditional applications.

Flash mobs in their intended use, involve a large group of people who coordinate a massive dance routine via the internet and then quickly assemble into a public place, in hopes that their performance will attract a large audience and go viral online. The goal is to get people talking, tweeting, posting to Facebook and sharing the video of the routine on YouTube. Brands win because it creates conversation; people win because they get to see themselves on that contraption called the interweb.

T-Mobile Flash Mob Commercial

Now, a new breed of mob is taking the world by storm. Affectionately dubbed, “flash robs”, these mobs use social media, texting and large groups of people (mainly teens) to organize massive heists to steal from retailers en masse. What would you do if dozens of people entered your store for a five finger discount shopping spree? If you said not much, then you’re in the same boat as Victoria’s Secret, 7-Eleven, and North Face who have all been victims of these socially organized attacks.

The Fate of Social Media?

This trend has gotten so out of control in some cities that local governments are considering shutting down social media networks to prevent these attacks. Philadelphia has issued a 9pm curfew for anyone under the age of 18, and in San Francisco the Bay Area Transit even shut down the wireless signals on some subway platforms.

Splash Mob
Police on alert over wave of pool hopping in Toronto, reported in The Globe and Mail

With the growing popularity of social media as means of communication, news outlets have continued to report on more stories related to this topic. The London Riots, the uprising in the Middle East and now North American “flash robs” are all being propelled into daily news stories and linked with social media.

So how do you cut through the hype and figure out how to prevent social media from taking your business by surprise? While its obvious social media is not going anywhere, there are a few steps businesses can take to stay in the loop.

Keep your eyes on the prize

While there is no single answer that will give you the full inside scoop, monitoring for online mentions can be effective. Since these groups are using social media to organize the mobs, businesses should stay current with what people are saying about their brands online. These organizers aren’t calling each other; rather, they are communicating by means of public social media sites. Monitoring online chatter about your brand is an extremely important tool to prevent situations such as “flash robs”.

Monitoring tools like HootSuite, uberVu, Social Mention and Google Alerts let you track mentions of your brand over the far reaches of the web. Whether someone tweets, post to Facebook, or writes a blog, a quick look at these dashboards can keep you in the know about your brand. Online tools like these are simple to use and could prevent an ugly situation from unraveling in your business.

Furthermore, even if a group of teens aren’t bent on organized crime, hearing what people are saying about your brand will always be beneficial.

Is your brand keeping up on the chatter about itself? What tools are you using, and how have they helped you?

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