Trial by Fyre

Today’s blog post is written by Jordan Simmons, Senior Account Executive, PatronManager.

By now, I think most people who are inclined to watch one (or both) of the competing documentaries on the doomed Fyre Festival on Netflix and Hulu have done so, but spoiler alert: Things do not end well for the festival planners, attendees, contract workers, or Fyre employees — really, anyone involved in the whole thing from top to bottom.

The Fyre Festival, for anyone still mercifully in the dark, was an ill-conceived music festival originally planned to take place on a private island — formerly owned by Pablo Escobar — in the Bahamas. Organizers leveraged social media and “influencers” to create huge buzz for the event, which was skillfully marketed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn your actual life into a supermodel’s Instagram feed — to hang out on the beach with celebrities and listen to cool music while imbibing and feasting before bunking down for the night in a private beachfront villa. Private planes would ferry you to and from Miami, and although you would pay a lot for the experience, you would get to live the life of an oligarch, if only for a long weekend.

I probably don’t have to tell you that this all went comically, catastrophically, criminally wrong, and that all the attendees found when they arrived was a half-finished concrete spit of land on a decidedly occupied island. The “villas” were actually FEMA tents with rain-soaked mattresses, and the gourmet catering was a couple of cheese slices on top of wheat bread. There was plenty of booze to be had, which unsurprisingly did not help ameliorate the “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere one attendee described once night fell.

There’s an element of eye-rolling schadenfreude, of course — it’s hard to feel too sorry for people who can afford to drop a minimum of several thousand dollars to attend a music festival in the Bahamas — but I would encourage anyone involved in selling tickets to check out at least one of the documentaries, as there are many lessons to be learned from the debacle.

LESSON ONE: Be Successful Everywhere or Fail Everywhere

One could argue that the Fyre Festival was extremely successful in one respect: Its marketing and event promotion was creative, far-reaching, and effective. Sadly, it was for an event that fell completely flat. If an organization isn’t able to succeed to a minimum standard in all aspects of an event, the weak link will bring down the entire event. How many times have you asked someone about their experience at a show, only to be met with some version of: “Oh, the play was great, but the line for the bathroom was unbelievable! They had us standing in the coat check line for ages…”, etc.? People tend to remember the best and worst parts of an experience, and if the worst parts are particularly bad, that’s what people are going to remember and talk about. Fyre’s marketing team really knocked it out of the park, but no one is going to be handing out any awards to them, given how the rest of their team performed and how the overall event wound up.

LESSON TWO: Social Media FTW

The Fyre Festival’s social media marketing campaign was very different from a traditional marketing campaign in terms of style and tone, but most interestingly, they created a viral marketing sensation by leveraging people with powerful voices on social media. They hired models and influencers to appear in their campaign, and the models/influencers, in turn, posted images from the Fyre shoot on their own feeds, amplifying the message. It was like a snake eating its own tail of internet virality.

Every marketer in the world knows at this point that social is key to getting the word out — but it’s not just about posting on your own feeds anymore. The people who follow your feed are already fans. It’s about identifying community members who can spread the word and take your message to a much larger audience.

LESSON THREE: Be Honest With Your Guests and Attendees

At several points during the run-up to the Fyre Festival, organizers could have pumped the brakes. It was becoming very clear to everyone that things were not going well and that when attendees actually arrived, there was no way to give them anything close to what they had been anticipating. Attendees expected a luxury experience, and what Fyre had to offer them were FEMA tents. Part of the reason things went so epically wrong was the giant gulf between expectation and reality.

If, from the beginning, organizers had set realistic expectations about what the festival would be, they may not have achieved the same reach that they did, but they might have actually been able to pull off an event. On the flip side, if they’d found a way to readjust those expectations once they realized they couldn’t provide the kind of gold-plated vacation that people thought they’d purchased, then they may have had to refund some attendees’ tickets, or even cancel the event, but the event probably wouldn’t have spiraled into a catastrophe big enough to warrant the production of not just one but two documentaries.

The fact is, most people will forgive failure if it’s owned up to. If an organization says, “This isn’t going to work out for this reason, and we have reflected on it and will do better in the future,” the public would likely accept that and move on. Defensiveness and dissembling only ever serve to alienate people from an organization, and if people become frustrated enough, they tend to vent on social media.  

BONUS LESSON! Don’t Fall Under Your Own Spell

The other thing that struck me in watching the Fyre documentaries (yes, I watched both) was the incredible confidence with which the head of the company, Billy McFarland, operated. It was magical thinking: If everyone just stayed positive, it would all come off without a hitch. He kept selling the fairy-tale version of the festival to investors, guests, and the media while ignoring warning signs that the operation was unraveling. It’s said that a salesperson has to believe in a product in order to sell it, and as a salesperson myself, I can tell you that that adage is true — if you are a person with a normal moral compass. McFarland seemed to identify so completely with the success of this event, however, that he wasn’t able to see the forest for the trees and make adjustments to the way the event was organized or marketed. He made more and more ethically compromised decisions until he crossed the line into full-on criminality.

Now, I don’t believe most of us will ever find ourselves in a similar position as McFarland, but there may come a time when we so believe in a project that we have a difficult time seeing reality. If we are fortunate, we will have colleagues around us who are able to tell us when they see potential pitfalls to success. It’s up to us to trust those colleagues enough to allow them to help us see the truth of a situation.

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