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As 2012 nears its end, Unruly has looked back over the year’s most shared social video ads, with one clip standing out as a clear winner. Moving, memorable and controversial, Kony 2012 was the online phenomenon of 2012.
At an epic 30 minutes in length and telling a horrific tale of child soldiers and intense suffering, Kony 2012 seems like an unlikely champion.
However, despite its traumatic content, Kony 2012 is a master class for advertisers, showing just how to combine compelling content with a cross-platform distribution plan to reach and engage a global audience.
Research by Unruly’s research partner, the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, based in South Australia, recently revealed that videos which attract the strongest emotions from its viewers are the ones which attract the most shares. Earning over 10 million shares since its launch in March, no other video managed to put its audience through the emotional rollercoaster quite like Kony.
But far from being an overnight success, Kony 2012 was the culmination of nine years of intense planning.
In an interview with Broadcasting Ourselves, the official YouTube blog, Chris Carver COO of the organization behind the hit, Invisible Children, spoke about how they planned and produced the video.
The not-for-profit organization has campaigned to put pressure on political leaders around the world to put an end to the reign of terror wrought by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The ultimate goal would be Kony’s arrest and trial at the International Criminal Court.
When the founders of Invisible Children founders visited Uganda as graduate filmmakers in 2003 they filmed the suffering and destruction caused by Kony’s brutal 20-year campaign of mass murder and child abduction. The organisation has since used its documentaries to engage student audiences to build its grassroots campaign.
This approach has its limits, although playing the films in high schools across North America allowed Invisible Children to reach an audience of over 5 million students; the campaign wasn’t reaching a large enough audience.
“I think we all got to the point where telling the same type of story year after year wasn’t resulting in the amount of awareness about Kony that was needed to put international pressure on him,” explains Carver.
The face-to-face model of sending ambassadors into school had built up a base of committed supporters which helped drive Kony 2012, promoting the clip through their social networks. “We’re a grassroots movement,” said Carver. “So we first reached out to the supporter base we’ve developed over the past nine years.”
The organisation also enlisted celebrities with large Twitter followings to amplify interest in the video, with Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Oprah Winfrey all sharing Kony 2012 to their followers.
The student supporters are still integral to the Invisible Children distribution strategy, supplying them with shareable content. Carver explains: “Our supporters are truly the catalyst for getting our/their message out, and we invest a lot of time cultivating these young, amazing leaders via phone, email, livestream, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.”
As well as a carefully planned distribution model, the campaign had some truly moving content to power it. Kony 2012 distils the massive size and horrific nature of Kony’s crimes into an easy-to-understand format. The clip made co-founder of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, an instant celebrity as he and his young son talked viewers through the complex situation in Northern Uganda and how it has impacted the lives of thousands of young people.
Even the most worthy of causes can lose their audience’s interest with campaigns that hit them with a constant stream of negative messages. So Kony 2012 included humour and warmth, giving the situation in Uganda a human context to faceless statistics.
While the clip’s 30-minute length could initially be a turn-off for viewers, the compelling content kept viewers engaged. Carver explains: “Its length was determined by how much time it took to tell the story. After so many years of violence and despair, there were just too many elements of the story to ignore.”
Kony 2012 was written to keep audiences interested from the start to the very end of the clip. “We knew it was longer than most,” says Carver. “We were strategic in making sure that every second held your attention.”
The careful combination of content and distribution made the clip even more successful than Invisible Children could have predicted.
“We far exceeded what we ever could have imagined in terms of view count and awareness,” says Carver. “Millions of people responded and our infrastructure couldn’t handle the volume.”
Although there was criticism of Kony 2012 and Invisible Children in the months that followed the campaign, it did fulfil its aim of stimulating responses from governments. Within a month the African Union, European Union and United Nations had all pledged their support to finding and prosecuting Kony.
While Kony is yet to face trial, Invisible Children has brought about an influx of aid and international support to Uganda, possibly heralding a new form of international online activism.
The factors that drove the success of Kony 2012 would work for other branded content. While Invisible Children might not be a profit-making brand, the clip’s messaging still sought to build loyalty, advocacy and drive audiences to purchase a support pack. Kony 2012 is an outstanding example of good story telling and how smart distribution can be used to reach a massive, engaged audience.
Quotes from this article originally appear on YouTube’s blog.