Lessons learned from the KONY 2012 campaign

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Love it or hate it, the online phenomenon that is KONY 2012 offers valuable lessons to development communicators.

Never has a video – and certainly not one created by an NGO – generated such heated and conflicting responses, or achieved such global reach. Fast approaching the 100-million-viewer mark, in the week since the campaign’s launch, coverage of “KONY 2012” has infiltrated every major news outlet and online forum, and ignited a storm of commentary among Facebookers and Tweeters of all ages.

However, there is a side to this public debate that has been relatively under-explored: and that is the lessons for media and communications professionals, and specifically those of us working in the development sector.

Here are five important lessons that we can draw from this campaign:

1)  Emotion sells:  Empathy, sorrow, joy, anger - these are the things that make us human, and motivate us to act, learn, or care. The KONY2012 campaign provides emotional resonance in abundance, and the success of this approach is evident. If we are honest, many of us probably felt at least a niggling worm of jealousy watching that YouTube counter climb into the millions. How many excellent, worthy causes have we been pushing for years, wishing for a response just like this? We can learn from this, in terms of how we present our work. At the same time, these tactics, familiar from the film industry, have the dangerous potential to become a form of emotional pornography. We must be careful in how we employ this approach, so that we do not compromise our mission, or our ethics, in order to provoke a reaction. An example of a feel-good video that doesn’t ignore the agency of the people involved is Mama Hope’s glorious celebration of connectivity, their “Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential” Campaign.

2)  Urgency equals action: Another key to the success of the campaign was the inherent sense of urgency woven into it. The video emphasises the “window of opportunity” that will soon close, the terrible suffering of children which must not continue. For the same reason, efforts to fundraise for earthquake relief funds and other sudden disasters or famines are radically more successful than for ongoing issues of malnutrition. How can we use this in our own campaigns? How can we make long-standing issues with no easy answer into a cause of immediate concern? The Girl Effect is one very slick example of how to introduce a sense of urgency into a long-term problem - education for girls.

3)    People want to act (1): Once people care about something, they usually ask “so what can I do?” If there is no answer to this question, your audience may be left more cynical and apathetic than before. The KONY2012 campaign’s infectiously viral success is due to the clear, simple action it provided for ordinary people to take. Whilst the simplistic nature of this action (especially in the context of a highly complex, distant conflict) has been the subject of much of the criticism facing the campaign, there are many cases in which liking, tweeting or forwarding on a message would be a perfectly appropriate action to encourage. There have also been great examples of creative actions that go beyond simply clicking a button – such as the inspired Movember moustache drive. Bear this in mind the next time you create your own campaign: don’t just inform, ask. Let’s transform viewers into activists. We might be surprised by the response.

4)    People want to act (2): ... because it’s worth repeating. We need to recognise that however dubious the message or methodology of the campaign, the millions of people who watched the video, forwarded it on, and bought “action packs” from Invisible Children were motivated by a genuine desire to make a difference. Yet how many of us have at one time or another bemoaned the apathy and ignorance of the vast, amorphous “general public”? Is this is an opportunity for all of us as development communicators to recognise that if we are failing to engage the public, perhaps we need to look at ourselves and how we are communicating?

5)     We need debate, not derision: Many supporters of the KONY2012 campaign have said “at least it has started people talking.” And this is certainly true; some truly excellent pieces of investigation, analysis, satire and reflection have been published, including a gratifyingly large number of responses from Ugandans. However, much of the debate taking place last week was bitter, simplistic, and divisive – the detractors classifying supporters as ignorant and uninformed, the supporters calling the detractors pompous and cynical. Both ‘sides” in this debate were to blame for the lack of a balanced discussion. If you disagree with aspects of the KONY2012 campaign, alienating those who support it will not change their viewpoint, nor will it encourage them to read more, learn more and engage more critically with complex issues. How can we find a way to transform the desire to be of service, so evident in the KONY2012 campaign, into sustainable, well-thought out actions?

A well-known development blog recently characterised the KONY2012 debate within the development sector as being between development communicators (“StopKONY”), who are awed by the innovative form of the campaign, and development programme staff (“STOP StopKONY”) who are appalled at its substance. But perhaps respecting the kind of success the KONY2012 campaign has achieved does not mean we must follow its example. Rather, we can take from it what is useful – and discard the rest.


The author wishes to express that the opinions in her blog are her own and not intended to represent her organisation. She recommends the How Matters FaceBook page for further information and the Twitter hashtag #stopkony.

Riona McCormack

Image Credit: Australia Herald Sun


The KONY2012 campaign is a

The KONY2012 campaign is a classic case of the medium is the message.

Bigger than Kony: An Open Discussion


Sharing a link to my storify-ed livetweets from last night's panel discussion on foreign policy and humanitarian aid efforts in Uganda and the Congo in response to the international media attention garnered by Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign. Panelists included Maurice Carney of Friends of the Congo, Milton Allimadi of Black Star News, and Nicole C. Lee of TransAfrica Forum, hosted by Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C.


Yes, we really need answers

What I cannot understand is why Kony goes this viral, and yet - in my biased estimation - an even more humanising, poignant and relevant video such as the "2012 MAYAN WORD'  (http://2012mayanword.blogspot.com/p/english.html) only gets a 100, 000 views. I know 100 000 views are a lot by most internet standards, but it is only less than a quarter of 1 per cent of 100 million! The "2012 Mayan Word" video is, in my view, a really groundbreaking documentary about the prophecies of the Mayan people concerning, among other things, the year 2012; it is about the environment, about defending Earth from plunder and rapacious greed; it is something of a desparate call to action - but one that is also infinitely hopeful about mankind struggle against humanisation - using lots of very personal testimonies by contemporary Mayans throughout Mesoamerica, from spiritual guides to activists, community leaders, farmers, artists, teachers, and children.

My question is: why is Kony supposedly more deserving of attention than the "Mayan Word"? To put it more crudely: what is so special/unique about Kony's message? You see, I just don't get it - and it is importnant that, for purposes of development communication, that we start to get it. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye in the Kony campaign. But whatever it is, I do not know yet. Perhaps time will tell.

Nyasha Mboti

Good points Nyasha, thanks

Good points Nyasha, thanks for contributing to the discussion.

I feel a small part of the answer lies in my article above - particularly the simple call to action that made people feel part of the solution. This is a very tempting thing, and encourages people to pass it on.

But the rest of the answer may be found in some of these excellent, excellent articles:

1) There is an interesting point made by this blogger about how Invisible Children have spent years building a following, and they were instrumental in getting the video out there and seen: http://communicopia.com/insights/why-your-non-profit-wont-make-a-kony-2012

2) Ethan Zukerman (http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2012/03/08/unpacking-kony-2012/) has written a truly great piece, about the (dangerous?) simplicity of the message, which allows it to become so popular.

I haven't watched the Mayan video you reference here (I will as soon as I can), but I am guessing that their work is far more nuanced and complex.

It's also worth remembering that those 100,000 viewers could actually be more useful than the 100 million who watched KONY 2012 - they might be more engaged, more thoughtful and more helpful in their response. Numbers aren't everything :) And perhaps a point I didn't make clearly enough originally is that just because KONY 2012 acheived "success" in a certain way, this does not mean we have to adopt their approach. Ethan's article in particular highlights the dangers of doing so.


On Aljazeera, the Ugandans were not too pleased...

According to pictures on Aljazeera (14 March 2012), the Northern Ugandans shown the Kony video were none too pleased about the film and threw rocks before screening had even finished. Those interviewed (http://blogs.aljazeera.com/africa/2012/03/14/ugandans-react-anger-kony-v...)complained that their scars were being trivialised. Apparently, their curses were 'heard', and Jason Rusell has now - for the time being - gone mental! But, on a more serious note, I think we need to focus more on the Pyrrhic victory of a viral online campaign that causes more harm than good to its depicted subjects. Nyasha Mboti

Targeted Communication

The Kony 2012 phenomenon has been successful precisely because it was targeted at a specific audience, and it was done so with the strategic intent of producing an outcome along the lines of what has manifested. The target and intent were identified early on in the piece - the American Public, mostly the segment of the American Public that is not very aware of foreign affairs in general, and what is going on in central Africa in particular (meaning most of the mainstream).  The intent was to sustain support for the military engagement to track down Kony and his henchmen.

 From what I have been able to read, the criticism is not coming from this target audience and is thus irrelevant. It has actually served a purpose in and of itself - that of further generating interest in the campaign.

A much more interesting contemporary film in my opinion is Machine Gun Preacher -- about a rebel biker who used a different form of communication when dealing with Kony - the barrel of a gun.

Targeted communication

Excellent point, Adam. It was indeed a textbook example of a campaign that knew its target audience, and knew exactly how to reach them.


Where I would (respectfully) disagree, however, is that the criticism is irrelevant. Firstly, the criticism does seem to be having an effect on Invisible Children and their public image.

And secondly, as development communicators (that was the target audience for this article) the criticism is very important for us to take on. There is a fine line in acheiving good communication (succesful outcomes) which is done in the right way (doesn't compromise the mission of the organisation). The popularity of this campaign could tempt us to follow its methods in ways that are not good for our long-term vision, the dignity of the people we are trying to serve, or our own ethical statements.


Haven't heard of Machine Gun Preacher, but thanks for the recommendation.


~ Riona

KONY 2012

Please see blog by Ugandan Journalist naked chiefs.com it will give you an accurate and in depth analysis 

Naked Chiefs

URL for Naked Chiefs is www.nakedchiefs.com

Kony sometimes spelt Koni and the Kony 2012 effect

Surely the jury is out untill we see the final effect. Will this bring Koni to justice? will it be because of Kony 2012

Yes Uganda and the rest of the world has drageed it's feet, Koni has evaded everybody. It is a difficult and massive terrain to cover. The international court of justice should have had much more support for their top priority. if USA 100 troops are on the ground and Koni knows how to evade them did this very public act of persuasion of policy makers in USA result in a too high profile act of intervention that was thus doomed by its own high profile. 

i have worked with theatre and human rights in Uganda and met some affected by Koni. Knowledge of his outrage does induce you to want to act and respond. The processess available to directly help are frustratingly remote. No wonder 9 years goes by on a promise from one individual to another. Is this the future for solving international or large scale outrages like the LRA? Probably not, however it highlights the need for a clear focus and firm but respectful co operation between governments, NGOs, INGOs, military agencies the UN and international courts.

Like most things the answer can seem blindingly simple but that simplicity masks a whole lot of logistic and ethical complexity. Koni is clinically mad and unpredictable and slipped the net too many times. He has existed in an liminal ecology that was formed from failure on many levels. Most of this was a construct of human agency failure, some geographical isolation a lack of funds and a lack of will. One thing is compelling from the Kony 2012 and that is the urgency of the 2012 part. 

Bill Hamblett commenting individually and not as Small World Theatre

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