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9 Marketing Lessons from “Kony 2012″

Posted on: March 28, 2012

If you were connected to a digital device on the planet in March of 2012 it was almost impossible to ignore the Kony 2012 campaign, and if you watched the video, it was impossible not to be moved by it. It is, and will most likely remain for a long time, one of the most brilliant demonstrations of the power of digital media, and of how to get your message heard.

Over 79MM+ views, 600,000+ comments, and 1.3MM+ Likes in less than it’s first week on YouTube alone are staggering numbers, and demonstrate that significant numbers of people were moved.

How did it encapsulated everything necessary for something to go viral?

First let me set the groundwork of who and what this campaign is about, and the controversy surrounding the group who produced it. I will then critically dissect the campaign, and reveal the marketing lessons and insights that can benefit any organization who wants to have their message heard. First…

Who is Joseph Kony?

Joseph Kony is one of the world’s worst war criminals. For decades he has recruited and used children to fight his rebel war in Central Africa.

What is Kony 2012?

#KONY2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.

Who is Invisible Children?

Invisible Children is the organization behind #kony2012. They are storytellers, activists and everyday people who use the power of media to inspire young people to help end the longest running armed conflict in Africa. They make documentaries, tour them around the world, and lobby our nation’s leaders to make ending this conflict a priority.

What are the critiques of Invisible Children and #kony2012 ?

There are those who criticize the film as misleading since Joseph Kony hasn’t been seen in Uganda since 2006, the children of Uganda have not lived in those conditions for many years, and the Ugandan Military they want to help “find” Kony has just as bad a human rights record, if nor worse, than Kony.

They point out that the filmmakers are oversimplifying a very complex issue; that because $1.5 Billion of untapped oil have been discovered in Uganda, the US Military, with right wing Christian support are supporting intervention.

There are those who say that because of #kony2012 diplomatic solutions to the conflict are probably now no longer viable and violence may be protracted.

And there are those who criticize Invisible Children’s financials stating that not enough of a percentage of the money they take in is going to actually help the cause on the ground in Africa, and that it gives the appearance that just by donating $30 the issue will be solved.

That is the background of the issue, the players, and the basic controversy over the film. In a way, that is inconsequential; this article is not about whether the message is relevant or factual, it is about analyzing the factors that led to it being the most viral campaign to date in the history of the internet.

What was the special “social” formula used by Kony 2012? How did it achieve such a phenomenally fast rate of adoption, and “meme” transference? What are the essential elements to this perfect “Social” storm, and the marketing lessons within it?

Lesson 1
You must first capture people’s attention.

“Kony 2012.” The name indicated it was a political candidacy, in the midst of one of the most active political primary seasons we have seen in decades; and indeed it’s imagery and political poster of democrats and republicans coming together was almost destined to be picked up by media. It forced you to stop, take notice, and ask that internal question “WTF?” And that, is the first step in any successful ad campaign.


Lesson 2
People will watch High Quality Video Online if it has a compelling story, is well produced, and leads the viewer on a journey.

The video was of exceptional quality, from sound production, to graphic use it was well produced. An almost haunting storyline that wove the connection between our children, to those being exploited allowed us to make an emotional connection to it. The producers took us on a journey and you could not help but get sucked in.

Lesson 3
A topic that one can only be “for” aids in the lack of resistance to the message being transferred.

If the topic is one where sentimentality & primal protection mechanisms are triggered, as is the case with child exploitation, it helps to capture a wide demographic. There is no one who is “for” child exploitation, well no ethical people anyway, and that aids in the lack of dissent of the message being transferred from person-to-person.

In this case there is almost nothing we will not do for our children or, in turns out, anyones children. It hits upon a primal nerve that triggers our emotional systems to pay attention. This makes someone more pliable to a message and more willing to transfer that message and be a willing participant in it spreading. In essence, it reduces the barrier to you being willing to spread a meme.

There is something so wrong with child exploration, that even in prison, child molesters are the lowest rung on the criminal ladder. Rapists, murderers, conmen, and thieves all get a pass compared to those who exploit children.

Lesson 4
Once you have captured people’s attention, you must communicate in a language they can understand so they will share it. Without that, nothing can “go viral,” for no one will understand “what” to communicate.

Simplicity. One of the criticisms of Invisible Children and #kony2012 , is over simplifying the issue of Kony’s reign of terror. However, with any cause or issue, especially if you are attempting to communicate that cause in a visual medium, one must reduce it to it’s essential parts in order for us to actually absorb that information.

Unfortunately for complex issues, and this is one, that means that any effort at simplification comes with a price. That price is truth. It is actually very similar to advertising. Advertisers and marketers tend to put a products best foot forward, to highlight the helpful features. “Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi” is a lot more effective an advertising message, than “Pepsi, it will rot your teeth out, cause you more pain at the dentist, spike your insulin, and could contribute to early onset diabetes.”

Brands, companies, people, and yes, causes simplify their message so we can connect with it in a positive light. This means that ANY message you receive that you can easily communicate is not the whole truth.

Much like Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, with any cause related issue, if you do not explain it in language people can understand and absorb, you will just be ignored. If you fail at simplicity your message will fall flat, and your campaign will end there. Al Gore was widely criticized about some factual inaccuracies or leading statements in An Inconvenient Truth, however, since it was simple to grasp the overall issue, people talked about it, communicated it, and shared it. The overwhelming body of the message was received, and accurate, so it suceeded in simplicity.

This is, in essence, valid for all advertising and marketing. In a way, one can argue that it is the essential mission of marketing and advertising, to creates meme’s that are easy for people to transfer to one another.

Lesson 5
By concentrating on specific Culturemakers, you create a funnel effect that concentrates your grass root efforts to spur influencer action, instead of dissipating it across too many of them.

There are people, Culturemakers, meme influencers, those who have the power to plant viral distribution bombs. From George Clooney, Oprah and Ellen Degeneres, to Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Stephen Colbert these people have the power and the influence to add significant juice to any message.

Culturemakers can provide significant firepower to a meme, but only if the message reaches critical mass to trigger their action, and it takes a significant amount of effort to trigger their action.

It is one thing to tell people to contact celebrities and influencers to spread the message. It is quite another to concentrate that firepower on a select group of culturemakers relevant to your cause. In this case 20 individuals were chosen. They range from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum. In fact, there is almost a purposeful effort to unpartisan the campaign. In addition 12 influential politicians from George W. Bush, and John Boehner, to Bill Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Stephen Harper were chosen.

By concentrating on specific culturemakers and politicians with influence, all those who were engaging with the campaign on a grass roots level were funneled to specific people. This created a concentration effect rather than a dispersion effect as the message grew from the bottom up.

In this way the Kony 2012 campaign greatly increased the likelihood that they would get a “pop” from highly influential people.

Lesson 6
Making an emotional topical connection can cause a demographic cascade that aids virality.

One of the most telling statistics from looking at the YouTube data of video views is that in the first days of the Kony 2012 campaign the video was most influential with Girls 13-17 and Boys 13-17. The next couple of days saw a shift where it was influential with  Girls 13-17, Boys 13-17, and Med 18-24, and now, at 70MM+ views YouTube indicates it is influential with Girl 13-17, Men 18-24 and Men 45-54.

This was a bottom up campaign that started with children, to influence the Culturemakers, to influence their parents, to influence Politicians; a demographic influencer cascade.

Much like cereal companies have their iconic characters look down at eye level for children to influence their parents decision in the cereal aisle (you did know that didn’t you?) Invisible Children’s efforts include a portion of their budget specifically geared to influencing children. Why? Because the single atrocity that grabs people’s attention is his use of child soldiers.

Making the emotional connecting between Kony’s use of child soldiers and our own children was essential to the demographic cascade necessary for it to shift from children’s advocacy to parental advocacy.

Lesson 7
Make it so easy a rock with arms could use it.

In an era of slactivism if you want your message to spread you need to make that message idiot-proof. You need to make your website idiot-proof, and you need to guide your idiot down a particular path, as if they were on a line at Disney World. This is difficult; somehow they always find a way to make a better idiot.

I am reminded of when I was behind a two-way mirror in a user testing session watching people interact with a website. I watched as a persons mouse reached the end of their table. Their cursor however was not as far as they wanted. They sat there, frozen and confused, not realizing they could pick up the mouse and then move the cursor again.

I was asked by our client how easy the website had to be. I responded “Obviously we have to make it so easy a rock with arms could use it.”

The entire Kony 2012 campaign exemplifies Ease of Action. From the website which even if you never scroll down asks just for email and zip code to participate.

To the ease with which you can contact Culturemakers to participate, a simple one click Tweet with a message already written for you.

To the ease with which you can donate, or order a kit to show your support. To the simple #kony2012 hastag. Everything in this campaign was designed to be easy. And there is usually never more than a single action that can be taken on any section of the communication. If you give people a choice online, inevitably they are going to make the one you do not want them to.

So stop complicating your web presence with information that is unnecessary. Stop clogging your advertising with too many messages, and trying to explain every point about your product. Stop sticking violators on your ads. Stop trying to write a manifesto in your ad copy. Simple is Better. Simple is More Effective. Simple Works.

There are those who argue it was too easy, and they are quick to criticize Invisible Children, the group that put the video together, but there is another lesson in that.

Lesson 8
Be responsive to criticism, and be human in your response.

Partially due to the overwhelming response to this campaign, the group that is behind it, Invisible Children, has come under intense scrutiny and pressure.

There are racist undertones of white people solving African problems, the claim that although Kony is brutal he is not uniquely evil (how evil does someone have to be?), the right wing Evangelical Christian leanings of its producers, the percentage of the groups finances that go to support to Africa but much of the criticism seems geared at deflecting and evading discomfort

To address these issues, the producer of the video and the campaign has been presenting his case. On the Invisible Children website, in the main aviation bar, is a section “CRITIQUES

In that section they address some of the various criticisms of their organization, from the photo of the founders with guns for which they say it was stupid of them to do, to their exaggeration of the effects of the conflict, for which they actually have a crisis tracker, to their financials for which they have been widely criticized.

Their response is that they need money to produce a high quality product…. and in that I am in agreement. A high quality product allows them to bring attention to their cause in a way a traditional Public Service Announcement, Press Release, or jumping up and down protesting in front of the White House usually does not. But is bring attention to the cause enough?

The director of the video has publicly answered questions in a video and there is a decent explanation of their position in an article at Co.Exist. The author there reaches the same conclusion I did. That they in no way could predict that their video would be the most successful viral video in history… in just one week. That type of success breeds it’s own blend of criticism, and jealousy, and if a spotlight was shone on any of us that brightly we may not like what we see either.

However, it does not appear that they are hiding, and they seem to be trying and they appear to be human in their responses. They are drowning under the media onslaught and those in the media who accuse them of non-response are probably angry at not getting an exclusive (How do you give every media organization in the the entire country an exclusive?)

They have fairly transparent finances, they are not a secret group and they have come out quickly with explanations to the criticism levied against them. That helps stem the negative opinion from growing and is a lesson to any marketer. Come out quickly to respond, and be human in your response. We all make mistakes, admitting we’re not perfect goes a long way.

Lesson 9
Don’t value what’s measurable; Measure what’s valuable.

There are a lot of different things calculated in their financials, from the 37% to African programs, and the 9% spent on T-Shirts and Bracelets, to the 7.8% spent on film production, and the 16% spent on management. But no where is the Value of that video.

Those who criticize their financials are thinking of this the wrong way. What if the “currency” here is not the dollars they raise, but the currency of awareness about a cause the main stream media in our country was ignoring?

Every major news organization in this country has picked up the story, from critical analysis from Washington Post, and USA Today, to criticism from CNN. A story that has been largely ignored. It is almost as if we want charities to fit into this idillic 1950’s idea of what a “charity” should look like. A humble barely operating on the fringes organization that continually scrapes by. For some reason that makes us feel better.

Awareness has value. Often we get stuck by valuing what is measurable, and not measuring what is valuable. Advertisers and marketers talk about social currency, and the value of information. They debate ad naseum the value of a “Like” on Facebook. Public Relations companies quantify the value of the press pickups for their stories and proudly strut into the companies they serve with that information. They justify their value on how they influence people, and the effect it has on their clients “cause,” usually hocking more products.

And yet we are so quick to discount all of these factors when it makes us uncomfortable to think of our inaction on something that means more than making sure some child has a tickle me Elmo, or their baby is using Pampers instead of cloth diapers.


Charity organizations have an expectation of actually helping, that their money makes a tangible difference to the cause they are supporting, and not just public awareness, which is usually the purview of politicians, lobbyists and public relations wonks. And that may be the strongest criticism of those behind Kony 2012.

However, who are we to judge them? What are we doing to try and change the world? Before we are quick to criticize this campaign, and I am sure news organizations will trump up those who will publicly denounce their efforts, they are, for all appearances trying, and there trying has taught us all about the power of the medium we play in.

Our country was hungry for any issue that we can all agree on. And that may be the last lesson. Lesson X: Pay attention to what is happening around you and what the current mood is for the strategy you are about to employ, Kony 2012 did.

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