What Your Brand Can Learn from Kony 2012

A social media effort that catches on quickly is an incredible phenomenon, but a dangerous one if the plan has strength without substance or stumbles over credibility issues. Politics and positions aside, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign is being called the ultimate social media campaign. Launched in March, this campaign and video are part of a grass roots effort to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who has committed numerous war crimes, including the ordering the abduction of children to be used as soldiers. Kony 2012 advocates for an international effort to seek his arrest. After a wildly successful launch however, the campaign has been stunted by a onslaught of staunch criticism for which it was unprepared. Reviewing the rise and fall of Kony 2012 reveals valuable social media marketing lessons not just for activists, but brand managers.

Know your audience and where they are online.
Brand managers know that any marketing strategy needs a clearly defined target. This requires knowing who your audience is, where they are, and what motivates them. Invisible Children has a solid grasp of their target, American youth. Teens and college students with deep convictions and a mastery of social channels are an excellent source of momentum in an online campaign.

Viral spreading of information is crucial for Kony 2012. The goal of the campaign is to make Joseph Kony and his crimes with the LRA infamous. Invisible Children hope his newfound notoriety will lead to his capture in 2012. By using a 30-minute video that presents the conflict in Uganda in simple (as some have argued, oversimplified) terms, the message has been quickly communicated. With supporting social media tactics it was easy to share from the start–creating millions of campaign evangelists in a matter of days.

Within days of the launch, the hashtag, #Kony2012, was a nationally trending topic on Twitter, Facebook statuses reflected support for the movement, and profile pictures and wallpaper images were changed to crimson “Stop Kony” digital posters. The campaign aligned itself with a desirable identity–a young activist who is passionate about the world–and used it to quickly gain popularity via social channels.

Use key influentials to carry your brand message.
Invisible Children launched the video by targeting “Culture Makers.” Twenty celebrities and 12 policy makers were identified on the website, and supporters were encouraged to tweet at each one about Kony 2012. Celebrities who responded by tweeting further included Rihanna, Ryan Seacrest, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. Day 1 of the launch saw 66,000 views. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s tweet to her 10 million followers that broke the one million-view mark on Day 2. By the end of the first week of its launch, the video had received more than 70 million views.

Not every brand can rely on celebrity sponsorship. However, every target demographic has key influencers, and almost all of them are on social media. A “grass roots” approach to digital word-of-mouth marketing requires discovering which bloggers, experts, and public figures your audience is listening to, and attempt engage them first. Creating brand ambassadors out of established figures lends legitimacy to your message and gives your campaign viral wings.

Get your audience moving.
While teens aren’t being told to physically pursue Kony themselves, they have been given a clear call to action outside the virtual realm. Fans became activists by purchasing “Action Kits” that included a t-shirt, posters, bracelets, stickers, buttons and an “Action Guide.” The half a million action kits sold out almost immediately.

kony 2012 action kit

A digital tool, the LRA Crisis Tracker website, was created to keep people engaged with the campaign and provide a source of ongoing information. The tracker displays a map and real-time updates on the movements of the Lord’s Resistance Army, including sightings, abductions and deaths. The website is also outfitted with a donation button and a mobile app, so activists can access the LRA Crisis Tracker at any time from any location.

A brand can tweet, blog and post Facebook messages all day, but if there’s no incentive for consumer interaction, there won’t be any. Decide what kind of response defines success for your campaign–whether it’s getting people to talk about your brand, buy a product, or share their experiences. Be sure to include a call to action when appropriate, such as asking fans an open question (not one that can be answered with “yes” or “no”), or urging them to share your message in a unique way. In addition, incorporating creative tools or apps that display your brand identity can be an excellent way to keep interested customers connected.

Beware the pitfalls.

Kony 2012 caught fire and spread with astounding speed. However, it’s much easier to start a fire than to contain it. An almost simultaneous wave of criticism swept across the Internet, poking holes in the validity of the message, the brand, and its ethics–all using the same social platforms on which the original campaign was delivered. It is evident the founders did not expect the roller coaster of positive and negative digital sentiment and were therefore unprepared to adequately manage the mounting criticism.

It’s difficult to anticipate how a campaign will be received, especially when the topic is bold or sensitive. That’s why it’s so important to be sure your brand is positioned on solid ground before immortalizing it online. Prepare yourself with a crisis management plan and protocol ahead of time, so your team knows how to respond to any volatile feedback, lest you find yourself out of your mind, (and your clothes).

Brand managers, what have been your most successful campaign launch tactics? And how do you prepare for potential criticism?


Wes Crnkovich

With two B.A.s spanning history, historical geography, languages, and Soviet Studies, as well as a Master of... Continue reading