A 30-minute documentary about human rights is the most viral video of all time!
This is something to celebrate, no matter what criticisms are leveled against Invisible Children (IC) and their campaign for the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (if you haven’t seen the video yet, you can watch it here). Anyone who is using video to advocate for a cause or to inspire action in a community can learn a lot from the viral success of Kony 2012 – and the backlash against it.
1. It’s All About Social Media
Kony 2012 presents itself as a social media experiment, and is peppered with references to the connectivity of the world and screenshots from IC’s Facebook timeline.
When the video came out, IC already had a network of fans and follower that was hundreds of thousands strong, and they were the base that launched the video. Then, by encouraging these viewers to share the video with their friends and engage with celebrities and politicians, IC was able to expand its already large network exponentially, and Kony 2012 become the biggest viral hit of all time.
You may not have the same size audience as IC, but you can still follow their example of sending your video to online celebrities and bloggers who might promote it. If your social media following is small, look for a partner with a similar agenda or a distribution network that reaches a large, engaged audience. The bottom line is, without a strong social media strategy, your video (and your campaign) has little chance of gaining momentum.
2. Give People Something They Want to Watch
By focusing on characters who are a reflection of the intended viewers – connected, Western youth – and telling a story that is uplifting instead of depressing, Invisible Children created a video that makes people feel good about themselves, and makes them want to get involved.
Unfortunately, a 30-minute documentary about Kony’s atrocities, or about Jacob’s path from child, to child soldier to advocate, would never have received this kind of audience. But a video about a hip California filmmaker who wants to make the world a better place for his cute son, and about how people like you and I can use Facebook to help – that’s something people will watch!
IC has received a lot of criticism for the American perspective of the video, and for their over-simplification of the issues and solutions. Many of the critiques ring true, but in the end Kony 2012’s approach to storytelling has proven more effective than any other advocacy video, ever. The challenge for other organizations and campaigns is to find a way to tell stories that are relatable to the audience, while being authentic and respectful to the people who you are trying to help.
3. Empower the Audience (And Make it Easy!)
Kony 2012 gives viewers lots of ways to take action after watching the video, but one main goal is to get people to share it through their social networks. Donating, postering and calling Congress are requested as well, but all viewers really need to do to make a difference is share the video and help make Kony famous. They are the wired mass that can move collectively to change the world.
When designing the call to action for your campaign, follow this model of asking for something that’s simple, but makes a big impact. People don’t want to click for more information, they want to click to make a difference.
4. Be Prepared for Criticism
Invisible Children has been criticized not just for its filmmaking techniques, but more importantly for its finances, its funders, and the work it advocates.
Anyone launching an advocacy effort should be prepared for scrutiny, and think through all the issues that detractors could raise against your campaign. Especially if you’re working in partnership, make sure that your missions are aligned, and be up front about funding and goals.
5. People Will Watch Long, Serious Videos
The most important takeaway from the Kony 2012 story is that YouTube videos don’t need to be short and stupid. Between this and the success of TED videos, it’s obvious that there’s an enormous audience for thoughtful, long-form videos. I look forward to seeing the advocacy, educational and promotional pieces that are undertaken as nonprofits and brands embrace the power and potential of documentary video storytelling.