On March 4, 2012, a 30-minute video documentary was posted to YouTube. By Friday, March 9, it had attracted over 55 million views and had moved beyond becoming a mere social media phenomenon (2.5 million Facebook "likes") to attracting the attention of major media outlets all over the world. In a week.
The film is about a non-profit's efforts to stop The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan group that's been terrorizing the country for decades by kidnapping children and pressing them into service as soldiers (and worse), and is centered around the filmmaker (über-hip and attractive dad Jason Russell) and his nearly decade-long campaign to raise awareness about the war. Presented roughly in chronological order, the film tells the story of how Russell's friendship with a young Ugandan boy he met while in Africa in 2004 led to the development of Invisible Children and its global campaign to stop Joseph Kony, the psychopathic leader of the LRA. The film ends with an appeal for financial support and some advice about how to get involved.
I'm not going to go into the politics of the film - obviously any group that kidnaps kids and turns them into bloodthirsty killers is bad - and I'm not going to get into the current controversy about Invisible Children (there's even a Tumblr devoted to critiquing the group's efforts). Instead, I'd like to focus on why "Kony 2012" has exploded out of relative obscurity to become a viral phenomenon literally overnight.
I'm just going to come out and say it: "Kony 2012" is probably the best primer on how to use social media to raise awareness ever created. And while it obviously wasn't created for that reason, it's succeeded brilliantly and the lessons it teaches us can be used by anyone who's been wondering about the "right" way to use social media in their marketing and communications efforts.
Include your audience(s). "Kony 2012" is obviously targeted toward motivating young people to action and it does so amazingly well. Its YouTube stats show that the video is most popular with females and males between 13 to 17 as well as males 18 to 24…a very difficult-to-reach and attractive demographic. How does it connect so well with them? Easy: it puts the groups that it's trying to reach out to everywhere in the film. Featured as crowds of supporters, individual interviews, and in illustrations, the film makes it very clear that if you're a teenager, the film is speaking to you by showing kids from all walks of life, ethnicities, and genders working together. Even more compelling is that these kids look real. I have a 14 year old at home and every one of the kids in the film looked like her and her friends.
Be real. The demographic that this film is targeted to is incredibly distrustful of advertising and famously resistant to being "marketed to." And while the stated purpose of this film is to market this cause to the group, it does so by being blatantly honest about what it's trying to do and taking great pains to not condescend to its younger viewers. It accomplishes this by adopting an incredibly earnest tone that treats the viewer as an equal in the struggle (rather than a dim-witted teenager who needs to be schooled in the ways of the world). Even when Russell talks with his 3-4-year-old son about the issues as a way of laying them out for the viewer, he speaks more as a wise peer than preachy dad.
Aesthetics matter. One of the most remarkable things about the film is its visual style. Shot primarily in high-def (except for older video and video from news sources presented effectively as grainy low-res video), the piece has the feel of an Apple commercial (or music video) utilizing depth of field and lighting alongside the HD in order to give the film an almost 3D quality. None of this is an accident: by mirroring the Apple/music video style, the film reaches out and connects directly with the iPhone/iPad generation it's trying to reach using a visual language they understand. There's even a shot of Invisible Children's founders walking through an airport looking very much like a super-hip boy band.
Make it simple. One of the most compelling (and easy to criticize) aspects of the film is that it radically simplifies the issues involved. When Russell first meets Joseph (the Ugandan boy who inspired him), Joseph breaks down crying when telling Russell about his brother's death at the hands of the LRA. Without skipping a beat, Russell tells Joseph "We're going to stop [the LRA]." There's no discussion of geopolitics, no analysis of the pros and cons of committing American troops in an advisory role to intervene in the conflict, and no discussion about the underlying causes for the war. As Russell's son points out, Kony is a "bad man" and bad men must be stopped.
Be clear about what you want your audience to do. And just as the film resists delving into the complexities of the politics involved in achieving its goal, it also resists getting into the gory details of how the kids watching this film are going to help accomplish the goal. It presents the "next steps" near the end of the film as three simple imperatives and details the group's plans for getting the word out. The companion website provides quick and easy ways to contact the celebrities and politicians (carefully chosen for their resonance with the target audience, I'm sure) and tells viewers how to get the free "Action Kit," a beautifully-designed box ($30 through its online store) that includes everything you need to allow viewers to plaster their town with posters, educate their friends, and show their support with a cool bracelet. The kit even includes an extra bracelet - a must for the social generation - with a reminder that you can share it with a friend. "People will think you're an advocate of awesome!" states the Action Kit sales copy on the site. Share us. Be cool.
Show results. Another powerful aspect of the film is that it shows kids that they can make a difference by constantly reinforcing that the organization has achieved results already. You get "behind-the-scenes" footage of Invisible Children members (kids and adults) earnestly lobbying Congress. There are inspiring portraits of the schools the organization has built from the money it raised from kids "contributing just a couple of dollars a month from the little [they] have." Unlike the depressing "starving African" commercials shown by many NGOs that often make one feel hopeless in the face of incredible devastation, this appeal uses hope, not pity, to spur its viewers to action. There's a definite story arc to the film that builds to a point that, as a viewer, you can't help but feel that Invisible Children is just this close to succeeding in its mission. All it needs now is you to get involved to push it over the top.
Empower your audience. The film begins by empowering the kids watching it by reminding them of the awesome (potential) power they have in their hands as participants in social media. We're reminded that (I'm paraphrasing here) "Facebook now has more members than the population of the Earth 100 years ago" and that "governments now have to sit up and take notice." Politicians, pundits, and other stiff gray-haired adults are portrayed for the most part as hopelessly out-of-touch fossils who are powerless to stop the tide of public opinion expressed online. After establishing that the film's audience is already savvy and holds awesome powers, the film then goes on to spell out in exacting detail how to wield this power. In many ways, this is the video's most brilliant feature: by telling the audience how to change the world (and making it sound about as easy as "liking" the film on Facebook, reposting it, and maybe kicking a couple of bucks to the organization), it's able to get past the paralysis brought about by 24/7 news cycles and their torrent of ongoing disaster in order to get out the message that, yes, this is really possible! For a 14 year old who has little control over her life, this is an irresistible message.
Will "Kony 2012" actually be able to bring an end to the horrors of the LRA in Uganda? It's impossible to tell after a week. Bu there's no way that you can walk away from this film not feeling (at least a little bit, even if you're a cynical adult) that it's entirely possible you could change the world.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.