5 lessons from the most viral video ever

While you shouldn’t attempt to replicate KONY 2012’s idea, you should ensure your video includes these elements.


Monday, March 5th saw the launch of the most successful viral marketing campaign in history. Nonprofit organization Invisible Children published the KONY 2012 campaign video, taking the social media world by storm.

The day the video launched, it seemed nearly everyone was posting it on every social media platform. In just one week, the video reached more than 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo combined. It is now the fastest growing video of all time.

The video sparked intense political debate but, whether you agree or disagree with the message, no one can argue the campaign’s marketing is anything but successful.

To help those who want to tell stories on social media, we spoke with Pat Walsh, co-founder and CMO of StayClassy.org, the social fundraising platform behind Invisible Children.

Here are five lessons brands can take away from Invisible Children’s monumental social media campaign:

1. Stories matter.

The success of the KONY 2012 video sparked significant criticism, but there’s no questioning the primary lesson from Invisible Children’s experiment in social activism: Everyone, like every brand, has a story. Those who tell it best, win.

Invisible Children turned its eight-year mission into a compelling story that pulled at the heartstrings of millions. It told the story in a way nearly everyone could understand, regardless of age or knowledge.

Some argued the video was too naive and oversimplified a complex problem. But in order for Invisible Children to create a video that could keep the audience’s attention and spark a worldwide movement, the story had to be gripping and easy to understand.

2. Don’t try this at home.

Most people who yearn for viral success try to replicate someone else’s successful idea, but this is no nyan cat. Invisible Children worked on the KONY 2012 video for nearly a decade, and the depth—and 30-minute length—of the story makes it difficult to replicate.

“I have no doubt that the success of the video (seen by more people than any single TV show this week) will lead many organizations astray in the naive belief that they can emulate this one,” says Seth Godin. “If a non-profit board decides to spend precious resources on a video hoping it will change the world in three days, I think they’re misguided.”

That’s not to say brands, particularly nonprofits, can’t create a groundswell of support that affects change.

“One of the greatest effects of KONY 2012 is that it has inspired people to get involved and champion the causes they’re passionate about—whether that’s removing a third-world warlord or supporting something more personal to them,” Walsh says.

3. Define clear goals.

Invisible Children’s success put the nonprofit under a microscope. Alongside its success, Invisible Children faced harsh criticism over a wide range of issues, including the video’s effectiveness.

While the video ends with a clear call-to-action to purchase action kits, Invisible Children openly acknowledges its overarching goal as a nonprofit—and the goal of the KONY 2012 video—is to raise awareness. No one can argue the video hasn’t accomplished that, but opponents say that regardless of views, the video is pointless “slacktivism.” Viewers watch, share and go back to their lives feeling like social activists.

But the content itself shouldn’t bear the burden of return on investment. You can quibble about how much money the video brought in—Invisible Children ran out of $30 kits—but that’s not the point. The point is that a vast majority of people now know about the issue and who Joseph Kony is. He’s on the cover of Time magazine. Invisible Children set out to make him famous, and that’s exactly what the video achieved.

4. Give your audience clear calls-to-action.

Compelling content can be very effective, but if you don’t give your audience a clear call-to-action, your audience’s journey with your brand may end.

Near the 22-minute mark in the video the narrator proclaims, “We know what to do. Here it is. Ready?” The final seven minutes lay out Invisible Children’s goals and specifically what it wants the audience to do:

  1. Order an action kit.
  2. Donate a few dollars a month.
  3. Reach out to culture-makers and politicians to show you care.
  4. On April 20, paint your town or city with the posters and stickers in the action kit.

Not everybody is willing or able to be deeply involved in an issue, but if you give your audience easy ways to contribute to a project, they might become more passionate than they thought they were.

Sometimes asking isn’t enough. You have to make it very easy for people to do what you want. If you want them to share your infographic with their social networks, make sure there are social sharing buttons near the graphic. If you want people to donate, show them exactly where to do so, and even ask for a specific amount.

The KONY 2012 site makes it easy for people to tweet culture- and policy-makers. There is a pre-written tweet, which provides a thank-you if they’ve already tweeted.

Will this viral video translate to real-world action in time for the declared group action date of April 20?

“I think it already has,” Walsh says. “Invisible Children has brought an elevated level of awareness and a new call-to-action to a long-standing silent war. As a result of the campaign, media organizations like NBC Nightly News are sending teams to Africa to further investigate and build awareness around the issues. Politicians are coming out in strong support of taking action. Invisible Children’s awareness tactics have led to tangible action in the past, and I think this latest campaign has the momentum to make their largest impact yet.”

5. Ensure your audience members see themselves in your story.

When people see themselves in your story, the burden to persuade disappears. The KONY 2012 video had a variety of characters who made it easy for viewers of all ages to relate to.

When we see the narrator’s son, we see our own sons and daughters. When college kids—the primary target audience—see the video, they see hundreds of other kids who look like them painting the streets with Kony posters.

You can’t do this for every audience, of course. This video got a negative reaction from those in areas of Uganda where Kony’s reign was the worst. That’s an understandable reaction from those who lived through suffering, but to be fair, they weren’t the target audience.

Invisible Children targeted an audience who could immediately respond to the call-to-action to share, reach out and donate. Looking at the amount of shares the video has, it obviously resonated with the target audiences.

Global storytelling has a long tail. If Rebecca Black is still getting work, then we can expect Invisible Children’s message to be around well into 2013 and beyond. This widespread success and awareness may motivate politicians to act. It’s not perfect, but the story is too effective to ignore.

If you want to tell a story, the lesson to remember from the Invisible Children campaign is to make sure your story is compelling to your target audience. Your brand may not create the next viral sensation, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have your own story to tell. You simply need to determine how to tell it in a way that captivates and compels your audience to share.

Why do you think the KONY 2012 video went viral so quickly? What other lessons does the video provide?

Jon Thomas is communications director for Story Worldwide and a curator at the upcoming Post-Advertising Summit in New York City on March 29. This post first appeared on Post-Advertising.

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