Sunday, September 16, 2012

The incredible story of how a documentary, "Kony 2012", went viral and helped raise millions of dollars for the NGO that made it

Headlined "Guerrilla marketing" (great title, that), a five-page feature in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has re-focused the spotlight on a 30-minute film about the heinous acts of an African warlord.

Kony 2012 was launched on YouTube by the US-based NGO Invisible Children in March Facebook and Twitter users will remember the many "shares" and "likes" the link gathered on the way to becoming a worldwide sensation and its popularity resulted in, according to the article, nearly two million people visiting the donation page of Invisible Children within the first few weeks of the campaign.


Bloomberg Businessweek staff writer Claire Suddath, who has clearly done an enormous amount of research for this story, tells us that Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell designed Kony 2012 to do two seemingly incompatible things:

1) explain a protracted international conflict happening very far away; and 2) be as popular as a Buzzfeed list. Russell did away with much of Kony’s back story and focused instead on the target audience: teenagers and twentysomethings browsing Facebook (FB) and Twitter.

He added some feel-good philosophy about the interconnectedness of society, scored the film with a dubstep song, and shortened it to 29 minutes and 59 seconds because a timestamp starting with a 2 looked less daunting than one with a 3.

Russell also put his young son Gavin in the film because, as Invisible Children’s director of idea development, Jedidiah Jenkins, explains, “if you want to get something watched online, you either have to put funny cats in it or little kids.”

What a terrific lesson that is about how to engage your target audience. Now you know why I think "Guerrilla Marketing" is such a wonderful headline for this piece.

There's more in the article in terms of marketing wisdom as well as human interest. I was intensely moved, for instance, by the description of Russell's plight today:

He couldn’t be interviewed because he’s recovering from the “brief reactive psychosis” — a psychotic episode often caused by stress — he suffered after the release of the video, according to Invisible Children. He hasn’t returned to work. In an e-mail, his wife described his recovery process as “building invisible fences around what’s sacred [and] getting back to life.”

And why was Russell stressed out? Because, Suddath writes, the backlash against Kony 2012 was as swift as the video's spread.

At the height of the criticism this spring, 10 days after Kony 2012’s release, police found him naked and shouting in a residential San Diego neighbourhood, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown. Footage of the incident quickly appeared on TMZ and Gawker.

Why was there a backlash? What was the criticism about? Read "Guerrilla Marketing" here to know more. Also read: "Five Reasons the Kony Video Went Viral".
  • Photographs courtesy: Bloomberg Businessweek
  • As far back as March 1998, The New Yorker, one of the most cerebral magazines in the world, had published a report on the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony. Read it here: "Letter from Uganda".
UPDATE (July 30, 2018): Read this BBC News profile of Joseph Kony: Child kidnapper, warlord, 'prophet'.

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