Kony 2012: The anatomy of a viral campaign

March 9, 2012

A particularly savvy media campaign by a nonprofit group called Invisible Children has pushed a debate about Uganda and rebel leader Joseph Kony into a very bright spotlight.

Without getting into the arguments about the political motivations of the nonprofit and the consequences of its campaign — check out coverage from The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Flock for more information on the situation and its history — it’s astonishing that the group’s members have been able to draw this much attention now to a conflict that’s been going on since the 1980s.

So how did they do it?

The group launched a campaign called “Kony 2012,” an effort to raise awareness about Kony and the small force the Obama administration sent to Uganda in October with the intent of killing or capturing him and combating his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

To get the campaign off the ground quickly, the group had users send messages to 20 “culturemakers” and 12 “policymakers” with influential Twitter accounts urging them to support the effort. The list included names such as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former President George W. Bush, as well as celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Mark Zuckerberg and Lady Gaga.

The message that users could send to those people included a hashtag, #Kony2012, that gave the Twitter community something to galvanize around. It read: “Help us end #LRA violence. Visit kony2012.com to find out why and how. @rickwarren Join us for #KONY2012”

The group also made a well-produced short film that encouraged people to use social media to raise awareness about the movement, which spread quickly over Vimeo and YouTube, where it has garnered more than 57 million views.

The video boils down this complicated issue into a simple one, with a compelling narrative that tugs on the heartstrings and prompts outrage. And it gives users an easy way to take action: Share the video, share the story and don’t stop speaking up until they get the result they want.

The group was also able to tap into an already strong social media presence on Facebook and other sites to get the message out in a big, noticeable burst.

And it certainly has worked. The hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 have been on the list of trending topics worldwide on Twitter ever since launched its campaign Tuesday. It’s been a fixture on Google’s list of trending topics, and even the debate over the group’s methods and message have kept its message afloat.

Related stories:

Invisible Children responds to criticism about ‘Stop Kony’ campaign

Kony 2012 campaign gets support of Obama, others

Uganda: How you can help

‘Kony 2012’ offers businesses lessons on viral marketing

Ugandans criticize anti-Kony video campaign sensation for simplifying a complicated history

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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