As I was making the rounds on a few of my favorite blogs recently, I was struck by a certain video of a shirtless man dancing at a music festival.  Although his dancing is a fascinating freestyle interpretation of modern jive (kidding), it’s noteworthy for another reason.  Within minutes this man’s improvisational and jerky movements inspired a crowd of followers equally as passionate as he, all flailing around and cheering, quite aware of the miniature phenomenon they were all a part of.  This phenomenon has come to be considered the perfect example of how social media works, indeed Michael Troiano of the blog Scalable Intimacy claims that, “if there’s a more powerful metaphor, I haven’t seen it.”

It starts with one person and a relevant, authentic message.  Others join in until we reach the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell would put it, and the message spreads like wildfire.  People begin clamoring to jump on the bandwagon and they’re telling their friends to as well.  At the Sasquatch Music Festival, a shirtless guy on a hillside got his message to the masses.  In the social media arena, it could be a tweet, a post, an ad, or just about anything.

There’s no denying that this is how it happens.  However, the key here is context.  A bunch of people on a hillside in the middle of Washington like to dance.  Is this of any importance to most of us?  No.  But this could certainly be interesting to, say, the concert’s promoters or merchandisers.  Take another example: in April, two employee’s of the nation’s largest pizza chain, Domino’s posted a video online of them sullying sandwich ingredients and then shipping out the meal to a customer.  Domino’s had a crisis on their hands that was created in the social media sphere.

The key question facing Domino’s was the extent to which they were going to respond.  They quickly crafted an apology video and set up a Twitter account, but didn’t opt for any more mainstream tactics; they didn’t take an ad out in a major newspaper or make appearances on network TV stations.  They fought viral with viral, and although they’re destined to lose that battle, it sufficed.  They came to the realization that their crisis existed within a certain group, a certain context, much like the dancers at the music festival.

Those dancers could have been one percent of the people at that show or they could have been fifty percent.  The implications are drastic for either scenario.  If you’re trying to position a brand you need to know which scenario you’re in.  Which dancers are dancing in a big crowd?  Who’s dancing in a small crowd, and who’s not dancing at all?  What kind of crowd are you trying to create or join? 

In Chandler, Arizona, a Facebook fan page has popped up for Mary Moss, who works the drive-through at the local McDonald’s.  With 722 fans, she’s certainly not going to join Jessica Biel as one of the internet’s most dangerous searches.  But how many fans does your local McDonald’s worker have?  Mary’s following is extraordinary and taken in context it’s an incredible display of the power of brand loyalty and a simple message.  So if you think it’s time to dance, for all of us watching, just make sure you know how.

Contributed by Jim Fay.  Follow him @JGF3.