Marketing the Viral Effect and Not-for-Profit Gold

I spend a fair amount of time on social media websites: I check into Facebook several times on any given day, I follow over 700 people on my Twitter account and average anywhere from 3-10 posts to it per day. I also regularly visit LinkedIn as well as Google+ and have been known to browse Pinterest, Quora, and some of the various other players. The point is that I usually have a pretty good feel when a topic is trending or a movement is growing on the Internet. At dinner this past Tuesday, my 16 year old son asked me if anyone at work was talking about that “Coney video.” I had no idea what he was talking about and asked him what he meant; “There’s this guy in Africa and he’s been kidnapping kids and forcing them to fight. Don’t worry – you’ll hear about it soon” Ah, That Kony. I was aware of the Lord’s Resistance Army through various news accounts over the past 5 years, but wasn’t aware of a web video. My son went on to tell me that lots of kids at his high school had been talking about the video and the group that was promoting it and they were horrified by what they learned.

The video that my son and his friends had seen was the culmination of a sophisticated and strategic effort to build awareness and raise money for a very specific cause. The web has seen other videos go viral, but never with the speed accomplished by three young filmmakers who traveled to Africa in 2003 to help stop the rebel Joseph Kony’s ferocious campaign and his strategy of using children as soldiers and sex slaves. It took them 8 years of work to shoot, edit and distribute the film, but in the past week, it has turned Kony into a familiar name to tens of millions of people around the world. The filmmaker’s organization, Invisible Children, launched the Kony 2012 video on Monday and, as of this writing, the video had received over 72 million views on YouTube. It has been mentioned on Facebook over 400,00 times, more than 2.8 million users have Liked the page and by the end of last week the Twitter hashtag #StopKony had been used over 10 million times.

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Invisible Children was formed in 2003 and has produced 11 films to date. Before launching the Stop Kony effort, they had already amassed a sizable following in the social media and it was this young, passionate base that they leveraged to launch the Kony 2012 effort. Their strategy was to get their followers to share the film through their own personal networks, and to enlist celebrities and others with large SM followings to help get the word out about the film and to share the link with anyone they could. Their simple message was “capture Kony,” and their call to action was a specific request to viewers to share it through their own networks on social media platforms and to make the name “Kony” ubiquitous on the web. This idea of joining in the hunt by clicking the “share” button was simple and allowed people, especially young people, to feel that they were involved and doing something positive by simply using a tool that they use every day of their lives.

Invisible Children’s goal was also straightforward: to put pressure on the Ugandan government and other African countries to capture Kony by the end of 2012. Within days, the effort was paying off mightily – on Monday the VansWarpedTour twitter feed was tweeting about the video and soon other entertainment industry figures followed suit: Taylor Swift, Alec Baldwin, and Rihanna all started sharing the link and on Tuesday Oprah Winfrey tweeted it out to her 9.7 million followers and then posted multiple updates in the following days. On Tuesday it was Ryan Seacrest and Justin Bieber to his 18 million followers. Even Kim Kardashian got into the fray and brought along another 13 million Twitter users.

The effort, however, has not been without some controversy and social media pushback. Some questioned whether the effort was over-simplifying the situation and others pointed out that Kony was no longer in Uganda. Still others question whether Invisible Children is completely transparent in it’s fundraising and in communicating how the money they raise is being used, with debate about whether the filmmakers are calling for military intervention in a delicate diplomatic and political situation.

Overall though, the social media effort launched by Invisible Children has made a huge impact and can be studied as an object lesson in leveraging the web and an organization’s followers to promote a single issue, to encourage action on the part of those followers, and to build worldwide awareness to bring justice to a small corner of the world.

Photo: Marie Jades

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