Why KONY 2012 Went Viral

Share the joy

KONY 2012 posterThe KONY 2012 video and campaign is an unmitigated success—at least to the extent that media coverage and social media sharing are the relevant metrics. It remains to be seen whether the campaign will ultimately lead to Joseph Kony’s arrest or generate greater financial support for the Invisible Children organization.

Within a few hours of the campaign’s launch, as the tidal wave of sharing began, critics emerged. Some of these voices reiterated past criticisms about Invisible Children’s lack of financial transparency and how funds have traditionally been used. Other critics focused on the visual storytelling techniques and pointed out inaccuracies (or misleading information) about the current status of Kony’s whereabouts and the current situation in Uganda. Others questioned the symbolic use of the film director’s young son as a narrative device to propel the story.

This post isn’t about the accuracy of the video, the financial practices of Invisible Children nor the politics and beliefs of the Invisible Children founders and backers. I want to focus on the elements and attributes that led millions and millions of people to watch and share the video though social media channels.

Social Media Strategy & Tactics

Regardless of the underlying issues, I think the KONY 2012 video and campaign is designed around a few simple techniques that are increasingly common in successful social media campaigns:

  • It’s a narrative story with a truly evil villain (Kony), a protagonist (Jacob) and lots of visual imagery that evokes a heartfelt emotional response, even from the most jaded cynic.
  • The message is so simple a 4-year-old boy can explain it.
  • The overall campaign incorporates signs and symbols that are easy to recognize and replicate through a variety of media (wristbands, posters, stickers, web content, etc.).
  • It’s easy to share: YouTube distribution with one-click sharing on multiple social platforms.
  • There’s an obvious “call to action” that tells the audience exactly what to do.

With those elements present, once the sharing begins you get the snowball or bandwagon effect. People want to make a difference, to feel like they are part of something big, something that matters, so there’s an internal motivation for joining in.

And in this case, regardless of what anyone thinks about Invisible Children as an organization, there’s universal agreement that Joseph Kony is a evil, heinous man who must be stopped and brought to justice.

Sending Props Where Due

I’m not the first to write about the KONY 2012 campaign strategy, but I’ve avoided reading any other analyses about the campaign since early Friday morning when I decided I wanted to present my own take on the strategy. At that point, everything I was seeing focused more on the speed at which the video and message was being circulated through the interwebs, not the “why.”

That said, although my interpretation of the success of KONY is my own, it’s based on a model or strategic interpretation shared with me by Hafez Adel, director of digital marketing for ReTargeter, a San Francisco digital advertising firm.  I heard Hafez speak at SoCon12 (So Connected 2012), a social media unconference I attended at Kennesaw State University in early February. As it happens, Hafez delivered his presentation on “Social Change Through Social Media” to my social media practices class on Thursday afternoon, so it’s only fair to say his analysis certainly inspired my own.

Hafez’s presentation starts with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and skips forward several hundred years to apply those principles to the communication techniques used to promote and spread the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring and the ongoing Occupy movement.

Although we didn’t discuss KONY 2012 at all Thursday afternoon, the principles and techniques Hafez Adel describes in his presentation formed the basis of my analysis of KONY 2012, so I want to give credit where it is due since I obviously had Hafez’s interpretation readily available in my mind when I was thinking about KONY 2012. Hafez is certainly not the first to describe the techniques of using social media for advocacy and social change, but he’s the source that came to mind when I began to consider the KONY 2012 social media phenomenon.

Interview with CBS 42 News

Just after 10 a.m. Friday, March 9, I received a phone call from my University’s Office of Communication asking if I could speak with a local TV reporter about the KONY 2012 video and explain why it had become a social media sensation. I said sure. An hour or so later, the reporter, Kaitlin McCulley, was in my office and I delivered my take on why the video had caught on now, so many years after Kony’s atrocities were first made public. I had already planned to have my principles of PR class watch and discuss the video and talk about what made it such a social media sensation, so I invited the reporter to join us.

Although Kaitlin’s report touches on all the issues relevant to the story, there just isn’t time for much depth in local TV news. As so often happens in TV news, much of the “why” part of my response was left out of the 90-second news package, so I decided to put together this blog post explaining why the video struck such a chord.

The CBS 42 News clip is available here:


If you haven’t seen the KONY 2012 video yet, here it is:


Links to the Critics cited in Paragraph 2

Mashable: KONY 2012: Is the Viral Campaign a Scam

Jezebel.com: Think Twice Before Donating to Kony 2012, the Charitable Meme du Jour

The Guardian: Kony 2012 video goes viral, and so do concerns about its producers

Herald Sun: Social media sensation KONY 2012 cops criticism for ‘cashing in’


Ike Pigott’s YouTube video critique of the emotional appeal of KONY 2012:





About Sheree

Change Catalyst, Idea Explorer, Dot-Connector, Square Peg