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‘Plausible Promise’: what Clay Shirky and Eric Roberts can teach us about devising successful big ideas

Clay Shirky opens up his Here Comes Everybody with the story of Evan Guttman, who used social media tools to help his friend Ivanna retrieve her lost phone when the finder – a young lady called Sasha – refused to return it to it's rightful owner.  he makes the observation however that these evolving social media tools (online publishing, forums, wikis, online social networks etc) are on their own not enough…

"[social media] tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.  Evan was driven, resourceful, and unfortunately for sasha, very angry.  had he presented his mission in completely self-interested terms ("help my friend save $300!") or in unattainably general ones ("let's fight theft everywhere!"), the tools he chose wouldn't have mattered.  what he did was to work out a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence."

you need what he quotes Eric Roberts with calling, 'plausible promise'.  and it was this idea of plausible promise that occurred to me when I saw the above mastercard ad for The Eden Project's 'big lunch'.  which is – to quote the mastercard website:

"a national initiative developed by the Eden Project to bring the
country together, by asking you to sit down with your neighbours for
lunch in a simple act of community … on Sunday 19th July, the nation will witness the
street party to end all street parties. The organisers of The Big Lunch
are inviting as many of the UK's 61 million people as possible to
simultaneously sit down together, to meet, eat, talk, laugh and feel

the event – for which there's also a film-making initiative in association with Raindance – has social media at it's heart and is using Twitter, Flickr et al to enable interested parties to organise themselves into action.  but I'm skeptical about the 'plausible promise' of it all…  big enough to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence?

it's certainly big enough, with mastercard's not-insignificant investment behind the above 40" tv ad campaign, but is it achievable?  despite a brilliant and very functional website, will individuals really organise themselves into having lunch with a bunch of people they don't know in order to 'feel hope'?

it possibly most likely that people who already know each other will perhaps drag themselves into action using the big lunch as a sufficient reason to do so; but I fear that this fails on the second of Roberts' requirements.  it's simply not – I fear – very plausible.  any marketers and agencies would do well to check to what extent an initiative they decide to undertake fulfills the two plausible promise tests.

marketing success for initiatives of this type require more than just promise; they need to feel real, achievable.  they need to feel plausible; and I worry that this doesn't.  I hope that the big lunch is a success.  I hope it brings people together, I hope that it makes a difference, and I hope that the time, effort and investment that has gone into making it happen is worth it.


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