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Lessons from the Kony 2012 Campaign


By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock – a rock without internet access – you’ve heard of the Kony 2012 Campaign. Hopefully you’ve seen the video. If not stop reading this and go here http://www.kony2012.com/. We’ll wait.

Everyone back? Good. Now if you’ve been following the story you’ll know that there is a lot to learn for nonprofit fundraisers, marketers and public relations professionals. Lessons on both sides of the equation. Some things worth emulating and some mistakes to avoid.

Let’s start with the positive side. First off we must acknowledge that this campaign has already accomplished its goal. The goal of the viral video, as one component of a broader campaign effort, was to make Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony famous. The premise put forth in the video was that if Kony became a household name this would increase pressure on policy makers to ensure his capture.

Time will tell if Kony is eventually captured as a result but there is no question that the campaign has already accomplished the goal of making him famous. The video has received more than 100 million views and it has been reported that more than $8 million has been raised by the non-profit organization behind the campaign. This response is unprecedented and has established a new gold standard for viral fundraising campaigns. The campaign, video and resulting media coverage has brought a lot of welcome attention to the issue of child soldiers and I think we can all agree that’s a very good thing.

So what can other nonprofits learn from the success of the Kony 2012 campaign? I have a few thoughts:

  1. Viral video campaigns can be very successful at generating attention and support. While your effort might not generate this kind of “lightning in a bottle” success most nonprofits would be thrilled with 1/10th of a percent of the views this video created. Wouldn’t you be happy if a modest 100,000 new people heard about your organization’s good work?
  2. Some causes are harder to explain than others. Either because they are too complicated or too obscure. With all forms of fundraising, but especially when trying to recruit new people to the cause, you must humanize the problem. This video does a great job of first humanizing the cause by featuring the story of a young Ugandan Jacob Acaye whose brother was killed by LRA members.
  3. We also can learn a lot from the effective way this campaign simplified the cause. The issue of child soldiers is complicated. Like most causes it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a cut and dried solution. But this video uses the device of explaining the situation to a young child to make it simple and sets up the easily understood premise that if we can make the bad guy famous it will lead to his capture and solve the problem.

Of course most problems aren’t really that simple and that’s a good segue to discuss lessons we can learn about what not to do. The initial, and perhaps even inevitable, criticism this campaign generated was focused on the charge that the video over-simplified a complicated issue. Fair enough but I doubt a complicated accurate explanation would have generated the interest that this video did. And I also think this initial criticism came with just a tad of sour grapes. Surely to be this successful they must have cheated somehow?

But as this story continues to unfold bigger and more legitimate concerns have come to light. In American culture we’re used to the cycle of building something up before tearing it down. Our pop-cultural landscape is littered with bones of celebrities, politicians, companies, causes, etc. that were first greatly celebrated and then roundly criticized. And this Koby 2012 campaign and the organization behind it have probably broken the record set by the Herman Cain presidential campaign for roller-coaster plummets.

The main take-home lesson? Be ready when your moment comes. Especially if you are carefully orchestrating your moment. In all fairness it is extremely difficult for any little-known organization to be ready for the kind of media attention this campaign generated. But still, in hindsight, we can see that some obvious mistakes were made. The organizations servers crashed under the weight of response. There appeared to be no ready response to some predictable criticism regarding the organization’s finances. An email sent to the organization today received a witty but disappointing response that “it may take up to 3 weeks to receive an answer.”

And of course we all know by now about the…uh… unfortunate incident” leading to the hospitalization of the video’s star Jason Russell. We don’t know yet the full story behind Russell’s breakdown. If you were made world famous overnight – and then forced to deal with very public blistering criticism – how well would you handle it? I don’t think most of us would handle it well but let’s just say keeping your pants on in public would be a good start.

It’s been a fascinating story and I’m sure fundraising and nonprofit professionals will be studying this case for years to come. But let’s give them well-deserved credit for shining a very bright light on a very serious issue and if Kony is indeed brought to justice we’ll have the Hollywood ending a story with this much drama deserves. Even if he is not captured the issue of child soldiers is on the minds of a lot more people than it used to be and for that alone we all owe a hearty congratulations to the people behind this campaign.

Katapult MarketingLessons from the Kony 2012 Campaign