Seven Lessons from Kony 2012

New guest author! Michael Khoo is Vice-President for Communications at Population Action International and an old friend — he happens to live a couple of floors about the e.politics bunker (sorry about the noise, dude). Check out his take on lessons from the Kony 2012 video below, and follow him at @michaelkhoo and @popact. Also, don’t miss Abigail Collazo’s examination of the video’s viral-friendly nature.

Seven Lessons from Kony 2012

By Michael Khoo

With 100 million others, I watched the Kony 2012 video with fascination. Fascination not for the beauty of the cause, or the inaccuracy of its claims, but for the actual length of the viral video. Twenty-nine minutes. TWENTY-NINE MINUTES!

By the time I was half-way through, I was convinced I’d clicked the wrong link because I still hadn’t been asked to sign a petition. This video violated so many communications “best practices” that I could barely read the controversy over the substance.

First though, let’s look at the long list of legitimate criticisms the left has about the video. It vastly oversimplifies the issue; it chooses an out-of-date political target; it casts an annoying white guy as a savior for hopeless Africa; the organization gets money from the radical right and has a militaristic slant; and, lastly, the naiveté of the campaign makes your average 6-year-old look cynical.

Having said all that, I think it’s more useful to ask what the Invisible Children’s campaign did to make the most viral video of history. A video that outdid Charlie Bit My Finger? As a Washington communications person who’s spent a lot of time editing videos to be very short, here’s my list of the right and wrong lessons to take from Kony 2012.

Lesson one: size actually doesn’t matter.

If there’s one takeaway from Kony 2012, it’s that we undersell audiences by thinking they can only watch videos that are 2 minutes and 45 seconds in length. There are authentic elements in this video that hold people’s hearts for an incredibly long time, and that’s all that matters. The two boys. The music. The hope. The simplicity of the target. Our job is to figure out what that is for our own campaigns, not be all high and mighty that our issues are so much more intellectual, or more smartly chosen.

Lesson two: depth of emotion is everything

Kids express honesty, that’s why we fall for them. As a new father on the verge of paternity leave, I admit I cried when both the boys were on-screen. The suicidal despair of young Jacob combined with the curiosity and sadness of the filmmakers son.

We are always telling ourselves that the American people need to see self-interest before they will get behind a cause. Environmental programs have to help the economy or create jobs. Foreign assistance needs to boomerang back to American business. That’s crap. Focus groups, polls and common sense show that people care about others with the intrinsic kindness of children. Except the children in Congress.

Lesson three: rules are not made to be broken, they can just be irrelevant.

As a lover of Google Analytics, it’s almost heresy to say that data and benchmarking should not always be our guide. However, the last thing we need is a new standard that all videos need to be 29 minutes to go viral. We’ve all seen the studies that short videos get more traffic. But 100 million people can’t really be wrong. Maybe every campaign has its own rules.

Lesson four: marginalized voices

I can’t stand watching a white guy point out suffering black people in the background. It reminds me of Bob Geldof in Ethiopia or Anderson Cooper in Haiti. That approach, as in this video, leaves the subjects disempowered, reduces their dignity and makes a hero of white people. It’s a revolving door of narcissism, from the author to the audience.

To counter that approach, most of us on the left have become champions of authentic marginalized voices. When my organization set out to make our last two films, Empty-Handed and Weathering Change, we removed the narrator altogether. Let women’s voices from the South be heard!

But despite my deep belief in that principle, it was clearly not a necessary condition for this particular success — 100 million viewers, and we should recognize that for what it is.

Lesson five: organizing people is everything

I don’t know if we’ll ever see the true metrics about how this was marketed but it’s pretty clear that years of organizing real people paid off. The images of people together was half the point of the video. Those who cared most deeply were most likely the seeds of the viral growth.

Lesson six: targets are simple

Legendary campaign organizer Steve Max once said at a workshop I attended that “campaign targets are not institutions or processes, they are people.” In a city full of policy wonks and experts, we need to respect how Kony 2012 humanized the issue’s problem, with a simple target: a person who is clearly bad.

Many are confusing their simplification of the issue, which was good, with their target choice, which was bad.

Lesson seven: hope really does spring eternal

The blatant references to Obama’s inspirational 2008 campaign are almost comical (is it now Shepard Fairey’s time to sue?) but that shouldn’t be surprising. The video builds hope for change. It shows a movement you can join. It’s young and optimistic. It doesn’t give up. What else has every successful campaign in history been based on?

At the end of the day, the argument over whether 100 million misdirected people is worse than zero unmobilized people will never be resolved. But we can try to look through the clutter, the hype and the predictable debate to learn what we can do better for the causes we would champion.

Thanks, Michael! – cpd

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Michael Khoo
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  • It fascinates you in the same way Goebbels “Der ewige Jude” fascinates a trained observer, it is dirty propaganda and it sticks. It teaches a lesson about human nature and why digital mob rule could become dangerous.