The KONY 2012 video has clocked more than 70 million views in only a few days on YouTube (and millions more since appearing on Vimeo two weeks ago), which is fairly amazing considering it’s about something most people have never heard of and it’s a half-an-hour long. (The average viral video on YouTube is two minutes or less.) This earnest effort to bring Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice and free the thousands of “invisible children” that he has abducted and pressed into soldiering and sex-slavery has clearly captured our attention.
IC embraces of the virality of social media to get their message across. Feature by feature, from the like counter to the new timeline, KONY 2012 shows how Facebook can be used to engineer social change. What happens if this effort succeeds? Will foreign policy be guided by social media fiat? Suffice to say, even the harshest critics acknowledge the group’s good intentions. And in terms of their use of media, they clearly know what they are doing (or else this current debate would not even exist.)
So what can social media startups, and practitioners of social media of all sorts, learn from KONY 2012? Here are 12 lessons in the order that they appear in the video (with time markers for easy reference):
1. Be Positive - The first part of the video just shows people connecting with each other, the birth of a baby, the pride of parenthood and the value of friendship. Joseph Kony doesn’t even appear until 8:46.
2. Get Their Attention - Early on [1:38] the voiceover tells you, “The next 27 minutes are an experiment. But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention.” A bit presumptuous, but you’ve been warned.
3. Make It Personal - At 1:55 we see a child being born in what looks like an American hospital, and by 2:39 we understand the identity of the voiceover and the baby: ”My name is Jason Russell and this is my son, Gavin.”
4. Invoke the Mainstream Media - KONY 2012 is peppered with references to “old media” for validation. ”This has been going on for years?” Russell says on camera in Uganda. “If that happened one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek.” [5:56] There’s and a fake TIME cover of Kony that reads “Worst in the World,” next to a real TIME cover of supporter George Clooney [23:35] and a fabricated New York Times front page that reads “KONY CAPTURED” [22:27].
5. Pull the Heartstrings - Russell uses his son, Gavin, and his young Ugandan friend, Jacob, for raw plays on emotion: Jacob’s is introduced through Gavin’s pointing to picture on wall and saying, “Jacob is our friend in Africa” [3:56]; Jacob is the first thing you see on the Invisible Children’s Facebook timeline [4:00]; Jacob breaks down in wailing sobs when discussing his dispair at living and the murder of his brother [7:14]. It’s manipulative, yes, but boy does it work.
6. Make it Time Sensitive - at 8:40 the screen announces, “Expires December 31, 2012.” There is no explanation in the video of what that means, or what the benefit would be of the video being vaporized from the internet at the stroke of midnight, but the expiration date is clearly meant to convey a sense of immediacy. The theme song also reinforces the sense of compulsion with the refrain, “I Can’t Stop” [26.52].
7. Make It Simple - In what is perhaps the video’s greatest coup (and also, perhaps, its undoing) we see five-year-old Gavin’s reactions to father’s explanation of who Joseph Kony is and what the war’s about [9:19]. The “bad guy” forces these children to do “bad things” against their will. How does he feel about that? “Sad.”
8. Make It Real (Briefly) - After he explains Kony to his son in a simplified manner, he gives the grownups a bit more detail. “Kony abducts kids just like Gavin,” we are told [10:50]. “For 26 years Kony has been kidnapping children into his rebel group the LRA, turning the girls into sex slave and the boys into child soldiers. He makes them mutilate people’s faces.” We see a rapid fire slideshow of ten horrifically slashed faces. “And he forces them to kill their own parents.” OK, I get the point, really bad guy.
9. Give it Scale - “And this is not a few children. It has been over 30,000 of them.” We zoom out from a closeup of a few Ugandan children to a crowd of thousands. [11:39] Similarly, the point of the video is to get Kony’s name and picture in front of millions of people around the world through hundreds of thousands of posters, stickers and (since it’s election time) lawn signs.
10. Use Celebrities - IC has identified 20 “culture makers” and 12 “policy makers” to “target” to help get the word out (20 + 12, get it?) [23:16]. The 20 culture makers run the psychographic gamut: Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Lady GaGa, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Gates, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber, Rick Warren, Ellen Degeneres, Ben Affleck, Rihanna, Stephen Colbert, Warren Buffet, Taylor Swift, Ryan Seacrest, Tim Tebow, Rush Limbaugh(!) and Bono. The 12 policy makers cant somewhat to the right: George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Kay Granger, Mitt Romney, Stephen Harper, Ban Ki-Moon, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Patrick Leahy. Although Clooney appears on camera, it is unclear what the rest of these people’s relationship is to IC, though their visual inclusion does imply a certain assumed validation.
11. Create Events - The video wheels out poster artist (and now convicted criminal) Shepard Fairey to say, “Here are these really simple tools. Go out and rock it.” [25:00] This sets up the major focus of this viral video effort, to get people to sign up and receive “action kits” to be used on the night of April 20th for an overnight postering session called “Cover the Night.” [26:36] Widely publicized public vandalism in the name of political change is not the kind of event every social media entity would choose, but it seems to fit the ethos of this group. The fresh faced activists in the video seem to be unconcerned that some of their wheat pasting might be considered vandalism, but so be it.
12. Make It Easy - The video ends with the obligatory call to action: “The better world we want is coming. It’s just waiting for us to stop at nothing. There are three things you can do right now.” [29:25] “1. Sign the pledge to show your support” (that’s easy) “2. Get the bracelet and the action kit” (how?) “3. Sign up for Tri to donate a few dollars a month” (oh, that’s easy too) BUT, when you click on the donate button there’s a message below the donation options that says, “A minimum monthly commitment of $15 is required to receive the Kony 2012 Action Kit with your TRI membership. Due to the overwhelming response to KONY 2012 your kit delivery is not guaranteed before April 20th.” Not quite the same the “few dollars a month” they keep referring to in the video! And if you don’t sign up for the monthly plan you can’t order a kit a la carte. You can, however, download and print kit materials for free (easy!)
What’s most impressive about KONY 2012 is the craft of all the pieces of their campaign: the mechanics, framing, film making, graphic design, the web sites, the Facebook page, Twitter hashtags, you name it. Will they make Kony “world news”?
They already have.