The Lessons of KONY 2012: a Watershed for Charity Awareness Campaigning

The KONY 2012 phenomenon- from breakout viral success to liberal/conservative/far-left battleground to terrifying masturbatory breakdown- is difficult to fully unpick. One thing’s certain, however: it’s had the kind of success which most digital marketers can only dream about. Clearly, this is something unignorable, particularly for those who work within the space of charity awareness campaigning. So what should the digital marketer, charity comms professional or anyone who cares about the passions of the public be taking away from the madness?

1. Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

This is an absolutely necessary concept to grasp for viral marketers in the current landscape. While on the one hand the success of KONY should be celebrated by digital marketers as an indication of our unprecedentedly connected society, its story involves more than grassroots appeal and word of mouth. In addition to savvy use of social media networks, the folk at Invisible Children also displayed a complete understanding of the continued power of traditional media.

An article by Bono in the Irish Sunday Times on the 11th of March preceded a noted increase in sharing, which previously had been declining since the 7th. Many commentators noted the powerful traditional media imagery within the film itself, including mock-ups of TIME and the New York Times. Interestingly, celebrity endorsements comparable to Bono’s but delivered via twitter had no noticeable effect on shares.

Despite the undoubtedly large part played here by collective excitement and sharing instinct, KONY 2012’s success also indicates that a well-placed media spike still works wonders when used in conjunction with great viral content.

2. Anticipate the Flak

Were it not so, but it isn’t possible to publish this post without at least briefly touching on the ‘unfortunate incident’ which closed one chapter of the KONY media saga at the end of last week. Apparently suffering from extreme stress as a result of the video’s unanticipated popularity and the hostile backlash against both the cause and his person, filmmaker and ‘dreamer’ Jason Russell was picked up by police for running naked through the streets of San Diego, pounding the pavement, ranting about the devil and allegedly masturbating.

While I don’t forsee the average mid level marketing manager whipping off their smart casual and wreaking havoc across the 2nd floor at the culmination of every online campaign, it’s important to bear in mind that a characteristic of digital is a certain boisterousness of opinion. A channel which relies on the whims of the public for its distribution mechanism is never going to be entirely predictable in its results or its reach, no matter how well managed it may be. This in mind…

3. Adapt to Your Audience

KONY 2012 was a perfectly pitched advertisement-cum-educational tool for the western audience for whom it was originally conceived. Stats show that not only was the film a fanatical success, but it was most popular not with charity friendly 18-24 demographics, but with notoriously difficult 13-17 year olds. Seemingly, a powerful human interest angle, a strong line in the rhetoric of fame and a well-considered knowledge of teenage sharing habits brought Joseph Kony into every school in the US and Europe (not like that).

However, the film went down less well when it was taken out of this context and shown to long-suffering Ugandans, who react with undisguised outrage at what they perceived to be a patronising oversimplification of their country’s tribulations.

My instinct would be to defend the film-makers, at least to a degree; that they managed to make a half hour film set in Africa which teens could bring themselves to sit through is impressive regardless of how dumbed down that film might have been. However, it’s hard to explain the fickle, hyper energised and occasionally feckless viewing habits of a western teenager to someone whose kids have been captured by one of Africa’s most appalling warlords.

The continued PR success of a digital campaign relies on an awareness of the existence of traditional market boundaries even in the connected new economy, and the tailoring of content to suit these markets.

4. Understand your aims

Fundamentally, KONY 2012 was a fantastic campaign which only really suffered PR wise because of a lack of direction- a contact at fellow social media superstar charity Avaaz told me that the video had left the charity world impressed but confused as to its intentions. Undoubtedly, Invisible children have achieved the remarkable feat of making Kony famous. The question now is what next?

Of course, there are all kinds of potential ways to leverage this initial achievement, but without holding any of them explicitly in mind, Invisible Children opened themselves up to the ‘slacktivist’ label. It would be perhaps too much to claim that, with a little more foresight, Russell might have evaded his tragic breakdown, but it certainly might have helped the campaign keep an even keel.

In the sometimes nebulous digital space, evaluation and clear messaging are both key. Keeping campaign aims in mind at every stage, and not allowing yourself to be carried away by possibilities, keep this at the heart of activity.