Given the fast and furious spread of the video Kony 2012, I need hardly introduce it. It’s been described by brilliant people I know and admire as a “gamechanger” and even simply “the future” of activism. There’s hype around it, but there’s plenty of criticism too. I’m going to set all that aside here. What we’re going to discuss here is why it’s been successful.
I want to start by saying that this is the proverbial grand slam home run at the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of the World Series. It doesn’t happen that often and it doesn’t happen at all without a lot of hard work and a lot of luck. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it to enhance what you’re doing regardless of what level you’re at. So here are the key points.
1. Make me F%$#ing care. Make me care! Make me furious! Make me laugh! Make me cry! Inspire me! Whatever you’re going for, you need to trade in the currency of emotion, not facts. You get and hold people’s attention with emotion. You turn people into evangelists for your cause with emotion. Do not quote stats and figures. Tell stories and speak to my heart. Speak to the human experience.
2. Have a theory of change. There’s a lot written about theory of change and NOI is a great place to start familiarizing yourself with it. The whole Kony video is based on this idea, but if you’d like to see it laid out in the clearest possible terms then watch from about minute 21 onward. They lay it out for you in under a minute.
3. Make the first step easy. There’s another theory of organizing called the ladder of engagement. Basically the easiest things for people to do for your cause start at the bottom and as you go up you’re asking things of your supporters that increasingly require more commitment. The mistake a lot of organizers make is that first step is actually something that requires a large amount of commitment or the jump between two rungs of the ladder is too great. For example, in my opinion, calling your member of congress is something fairly intimidating for people to do. It’s not comfortable and it’s usually confrontational—two things most people avoid. But yet it’s often the first ask or the second ask after someone signs a petition. Here, the first step is incredibly simple—tell someone what you saw. That’s it. That’s one of the reasons this video has reached insane numbers of views in a few days. Then as you get higher on the ladder you start telling others in more involved ways (see: their action kit).
4. Target cultural influencers. One of the smartest things Invisible Children did here is they targeted a wide variety of cultural influencers and policymakers. Almost every action I’ve seen for years completely ignores pop culture. But the fact of the matter is way more people care about what people like Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Stephen Colbert have to say than they do about what any elected official has to say. IC clearly benefited from some celebritieslike George Clooney, being on board with their cause already. But even if they get a few of these cultural influencers to share their message, it’s going to be seen by a ton of people and since they made the first step of getting involved easy (see #3) those people merely need to share it. Don’t believe in the power of influencers? Watch this video of college girls calling Congress about DADT because Lady Gaga asked them to.
5. Have a strategy. You can sort of tell by watching this video, but this is really the culmination of years of work and building an engaged community. Invisible Children had a passionate community of followers and they had some key pieces and wins in place. They clearly thought hard about how they could best leverage those things for change and this is the result. I could be Martin Scorsese with an unlimited budget and I couldn’t produce the same results here without a clear strategy and a passionate group of supporters who were ready to be called into action by sharing the video.
6. Know when to break the rules. Everyone knows the rules. They’re, you know, the rules. You don’t make a video longer than three minutes because no one will watch it on the Internet. You don’t protest by rallying at the capitol in the middle of winter. Oh, and you definitely don’t protest without getting a permit instead opting to “occupy” public space. Sometimes bucking the system is the way you break through. But you have to know when it’s better to go get arrested and when it’s time to put the suit and tie on and take a meeting.
7. Don’t imitate, innovate. Some of the most memorable things I’ve seen in the last year are fresh and new. This video qualifies of course. And so does this one on marriage equality. But you know what doesn’t work? Thinking you can copy the latest meme and have it be as successful as the original. There are probably 1,000 people trying to copy this video right now. What 99 percent of them are likely to get is a total fail like this.
So be inspired. Think about how you can up your own activism game.
Just make sure you blaze your own trail.