Cash Mobs: Social Media & Commerce…in the Flesh

Cash Mob

You remember flash mobs, don’t you? A group of people show up at a predetermined place and time—the northeast Christopher St. station entrance (6:00 sharp, Friday night); the halal stand on 39th and Lex (12:30, Wednesday); Madison Square Garden, next to the hawkers and left of the cab line (tonight, 7:30)—and momentarily wreak havoc to draw attention to whatever it is they’re trying to draw attention to.

A cash mob is like that, only different. One part social, another part commerce, and several more parts marketing, a cash mob is—dare I say—a more civilized kind of an affair. It’s a flash mob without the singing, dancing, and inevitable states of undress. It’s Groupon without the coupon. It’s hand-to-hand commerce (a term I coined right before your eyes!): the act of exchanging money for a commodity or experience in real-time. It’s product awareness, a self-selecting gathering of brand advocates, a loyalty-building exercise, old-fashioned personalization…an aggregation of people, which makes it literally social.

And it tends to last longer than a flash mob! Whereas time is of the essence with a flash mob (in and out in 3 minutes flat—or before getting caught!), a cash mob tends to be more flexible.

Instead of donning costumes, blasting music and chanting singalongs, participants commit to spending a certain amount of money (usually at least $20). Since the first one took place last August in Buffalo, NY, cash mobs have been popping up in various cities throughout the US and Europe. Their popularity is based on the basic fact that people like getting involved with things that support local businesses and strengthen neighborhoods.

What’s the point?

Cash mobs didn’t emerge as a way to save struggling businesses. Instead, they promote awareness of smaller, independent outfits, as well as sharpen the relationship between commerce and community. While the emphasis is currently on brick-and-mortar, ma-and-pop shops, the concept could easily extend to the virtual sphere. After all, there’s no reason an online business that hosts commercial transactions and community interactions can’t one day find itself at the receiving end of a cash mob “bump.”

I went to a cash mob in the East Village two weeks ago, at a diner that’s been around for well over 40 years. The mob was supposed to arrive at 6PM, but a sizable crowd didn’t form until well over an hour later. No matter: the important thing was that the place was packed that night, and the owner made some serious coin.

It’s fair to say that there’s an inherently social element to cash mobs; not only during but afterwards, as mob participants will often head over to a local bar or café afterwards to catch up with old friends—or make new ones.

How it works:

So far the organization of cash mobs has been pretty grassroots; www.cash-mobs.com is a centralized online hub that provides information and news on upcoming events, but the folks behind it aren’t really “in charge” of the phenomenon.

Typically, the business owner is contacted ahead of time, to ensure there’s enough inventory available for the onrush of shoppers. Any in-store promotion of the event is at the owner’s discretion. Word gets out via Twitter, Facebook or other forms of social media—and a list of active cities can be found here.

Needless to say, it’s something to keep an eye on…

Note: National Cash Mob Day is tomorrow, March 24th, so check one out in your area and see for yourself what’s going on!

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