Learning about viral marketing via #Kony 2012
// Jeff Maertz

In the world of viral marketing, the Kony 2012 video broke all the rules. Most successful videos tend to be short – the Kony video was long, at over 27 minutes. Most popular videos online make people laugh – Kony 2012 made people cry. In defying conventions, Invisible Children did something that all social media marketers dream of doing: had their message break through the clutter to reach tens of millions of people almost overnight. Which ingredients did Invisible Children put in their production pot to produce such a viral marketing marvel? We’ll try and find out.

There are three main aspects of the video that persuade viewers to click the share button on Facebook: it’s extremely emotional, it has a dead-clear call to action, and the campaign already has a strong and recognizable brand. Of course, the actual message was crucial, but let's just focus on the delivery of that message.


If you were anything like me, when you watched that scene with Jacob from Uganda (the boy hiding from Joseph Kony) crying and saying he doesn’t want to stay on earth, you felt something. It hit you deep and you kind of wanted to cry a little too. The process that was at work here is called emotional contagion. When humans see others in pain, feeling joy or any other emotion, they are compelled to mirror those emotions and feel those same feelings. This empathy, this emotional mirroring, is a powerful motivator when it comes to donation dollars. They say the easiest way to a person’s wallet is through their heart.

Perhaps you may have noticed as well that in those emotional moments, the camera was always focused on the young boy's face. This is a technique long used by The United Way and the Christian Children’s Fund in their Saturday morning donation drives. Focusing on the victim's face allows for strengthened feelings of empathy, and greater feelings of empathy translate into greater donation dollars for charities. In fact, a facial expression displayed on camera and in print is a critical determinant of charitable giving. Consumer behavioural researchers have found that in studies, people donated over twice as much to a charity when the charity's commercials focused on unhappy people’s faces vs. happy people’s faces.

Also, videos that elicit a strong emotional response – like Kony 2012 – are the videos that are most likely to go viral, according to a study out of The University of South Australia. This is especially true if these videos evoke positive emotions instead of negative ones.


In marketing lingo, a call to action is the part where the advertiser states what the consumer should do next. For example, in a TV ad for a car dealership, they might end the commercial by saying, “Come visit our dealership!” In the Kony 2012 video, this call to action was simple and extremely clear – sign the online pledge, get a bracelet, sign up to become a monthly donor, and spread the word via social media. Four simple ways to bring Joseph Kony to his knees – and you didn’t even have to get off your chair.

A great call to action needs an even better setup. Infomercials do this perfectly when they first establish a problem, present a product that will solve this problem, and then finally, show an easy way to purchase this product. In the same way, the Kony 2012 video sets up their call to action by presenting an evil child killer, revealing a plan for catching him, and then gives viewers instructions on what they should do next. This deliberate and well-placed call to action is one of the main reasons viewers actually pressed that share button of Facebook or retweeted #KONY2012.


From its carefully crafted logo, to its charismatic spokesman, Kony 2012 has branded itself poignantly. It has become an easily identifiable campaign, with a personality, an image, and even a tagline – “Stop At Nothing” – all of which mean to trigger strong emotions in viewers and prompt them to donate to the brand.

Careful branding isn’t new with non-profits – look no further then the Pink Ribbon campaign you see on the back of cars and on Canadian quarters which signify supporting breast cancer research. Having a well-branded non-profit helps people immediately recognize the charity and know what to expect from them. When people see the pink ribbon, they know it symbolizes breast cancer research, and they know to expect a organization that is trying to find a cure. This astute branding has helped the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Raise close to $20 million annually. If Kony 2012 can maintain this strong brand, they may be able to tap into funding for many years to come.

There are many other clever techniques that Invisible Children use to persuade viewers: the video features emotional, target-market-friendly music to heighten feelings of sympathy and relatedness; uses the tool of celebrity endorsement to add trust and credibility to their organization; and it offers exclusive products that you can only get by joining their club (the bracelets and action kit). All are techniques long-used by marketers to garner support and a buy-in from consumers.

So, if you're trying to go viral with your video, make sure you follow these three rules:

→ Make your video evoke a strong and positive emotion.
→ Have a clear call to action.
→ Brand your campaign by using logos, taglines, and a charismatic spokesperson.

It’s unclear yet whether Kony 2012 and Invisible Children non-profit will change the world, but it is certain that their video changed the way social media marketers look at viral videos. Kony 2012 is the first real successful merger of social media and advocacy groups, which is a great step forward for these organizations. Besides, every little lesson helps if you're trying to bend the power of social media to your will.

//Jeff Maertz, columnist
//Graphics by Karen Picketts

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