How would you like over 80 million views of the video you made for your not very large non-profit? Well, as you probably know, the folks at Invisible Children have just done that with their Kony 2012 campaign, raising awareness of the LRA leader Joseph Kony, responsible for horrific acts of child kidnapping, murder, sexual abuse and forced slavery in Africa.
I don’t know enough to know the full motivations of its creators (which have been widely discussed), but the video has been a social media triumph, so let’s break down some of the keys to its massive success (and not spend too long on the sad follow-up to the triumph):
1) Make it personal and passionate
The video wraps the cause in a personal story involving the film maker Jason Russell, his son and a survivor from the LRA the family befriends. They could have given many more facts about the case (and some have criticized the video for not going into the details), but telling a more personal story makes the audience (of regular people not journalists or historians) identify more strongly with the campaign. Especially when Russell’s passion and commitment are so apparent.
It’s worth noticing that for all the high production values, Russell did the voiceover himself, rather than get a Hollywood star to voice the story. That works well because we get the feeling that he’s telling his story in his own words. (Of course, you hope the person at the centre of your piece won’t then do something that reflects badly on the organization, but that’s a different sort of story.)
2) Invisible Children had already done years of groundwork
It took them years to become overnight successes. They run programs in Africa, they have tens of thousands of people already committed to their cause in the US and around the world. They had already cultivated a responsive and energized audience through all their previous efforts, So when they launched this video, there was a huge group of people ready to share and spread the video.
So all the legwork you put in building your community, posting useful resources and doing a good job in a quiet way isn’t wasted — it can be crucial to nurturing that audience of committed folks who will start the snowball rolling for you.
3) The video is expertly produced and moves its audience
The film is a great piece of work. It’s well shot, with nice pacing, good music and great production values. Invisible Children has also been criticized in some circles for the amount of money it spends on awareness projects rather than programs on the ground, but there are 2 issues here:
- is it better to spend, say x dollars and reach y people with it, or spend 10x dollars and reach 1,000,000y people. You’ve spent ten times as much, but reached a million times more people — different organizations will have to weigh what’s that worth to them, but there’s no inherent virtue in a cheap production if it has no effect.
- their plan partly aims to get people to pressure governments and organizations into doing things that Invisible Children couldn’t do themselves (such as tracking down a murderous war criminal). Whether or not this pressure on the powers that be will lead to the capture of Joseph Kony is another question, but if that’s your aim then spending money to do that seems legitimate.
4) There are clear calls to action around the video
There are immediate steps viewers are invited to take on watching the piece, in increasing levels of commitment. You can just share the piece (crucial by itself), or you can go further: signing a pledge (which builds Invisible Chidren’s database of supporters), getting a physical kit to use in furthering the publicity campaign, or donating some money. Depending on how strong your reaction is as a viewer, you can pick the level of response you’re comfortable with.
What do you want people to do after they’ve seen your video? Can you offer different levels of commitment?
Another key point is that the video drives involvement around an invidividual day of action. Like the physical stuff you can get (see below), this moves an internet campaign into the real world — getting people to show up somewhere and actually do something. You want to beware of ‘slacktivism’, as it’s been called — the practice of liking or retweeting causes online and thinking that you’ve done enough. It’s the 21st-century cousin of Billy Bragg’s comment that ‘wearing badges is no enough, in days like these’.
5) Give people stuff
Signing up for the kit of posters and stickers and the like works well. It helps spread the word, of course, but it also works because people like getting stuff, especially well-designed stuff (there’s the added value of quality production again). You’re not just part of something, you’re part of something cool — a smart approach when you’re aiming particularly at younger people.
What could you give away to encourage involvement in your campaign?
6) Put your video campaign in a broader context
The Kony 2012 video’s explanation of how social media is changing the world is compelling, and makes a case for why you should bother to get involved. You might think you couldn’t make a difference to what happened in Africa, but the video explains why this plucky underdog plan can work. I think its account of the changing dynamics of media production and consumption is broadly correct (and exciting) — otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job — and of course the success of the video shows that it really is a new world for activism.
7) Bringing Joseph Kony to justice is a worthwhile cause with incredibly broad appeal
Not many people would argue that it’s not worth trying to save children from a monstrous warlord, so the appeal of the campaign is global. If you’re trying to save the silvery minnow in your small river or promoting your neighborhood cafe, you shouldn’t expect several million views and international press coverage no matter how brilliant your video package is. Of course, that’s not to say that well-produced video, or high quality writing or photography won’t make a real difference to your organization, just that the impact might add up to less than 70 million views.
You don’t need the budget or the global ambition of the Kony 2012 campaign to borrow something of their approach. And its amazing success shows that a skilled piece of digital storytelling told in a personal and passionate way really can capture people’s imagination and drive them to action.
(For more information on the criticisms of the campaign, see this Guardian piece, and this opinion from the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. And it’s worth watching Charlie Brooker’s cynical, NSFW but well-informed take on the story).