How and Why Did ‘Kony 2012’ Go Viral Overnight?

By now, you’ve seen the “Kony 2012” video, or at least heard of it, and you’ve heard the criticisms. And whether you are a supporter or a detractor, you likely think the story’s done, a passing fad lost already to shortened news cycles, fickle Twitter trends, and Facebook app archives. But that is not the case.

Whether the newest chapters to the “Kony 2012” story will vindicate the effort remains to be seen. But no matter what the final outcome, there are many lessons to learn from “Kony 2012” — from how to make a viral video and keep it up and running despite crushing traffic numbers, to how to run a successful campaign and move the world.

Joseph Kony, in case you’ve been in a sequestered jury or something for the past couple of months, is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group best known for kidnapping kids and turning them into an army of brutal, albeit unwilling, killers. “Kony 2012” is a very moving video designed to raise awareness of his evil doings — an effort that has been both hailed and vilified.

Invisible Children, the nonprofit behind the campaign, is pushing past the critics, over the obstacles, and through the public meltdown of its founder.

If you haven’t yet seen Invisible Children’s pushback against its critics in the just released “Kony 2012: Part II – Beyond Famous,” you might want to do that for a report on the results from the “Kony 2012” campaign from the organization itself.

If, however, you are looking for the behind-the-scenes “this is how it’s done” viral video how-to, then read on.

Story Matters

By all accounts, a large part of “Kony 2012’s” success was due to its beautifully executed yet simple story.

“The ‘Kony 2012’ video took off because it had all the elements of a great story — background on the founder, a plot, a resolution, a call to action,” Shama Kabani, CEO of The Marketing Zen Group and author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing, told TechNewsWorld.

“It told a story which was compelling and impactful,” she added. “Any nonprofit with a mission they believe in can do the same!”

The production values were high, and they made the story more credible and appealing. But neither the storytelling nor the production was an amateur effort. Every step of the campaign was choreographed before a single step was taken.

Star Maker Tools and Tactics

Javan Van Gronigen, founder of Fifty and Fifty, a humanitarian creative studio, is a big behind-the-scenes player in the “Kony 2012” effort. His relationship to Invisible Children dates back to the days when he worked for Digitaria, a huge digital agency packed with talented online marketing strategists, Web technologists and creative website designers. Its client list reads like a Who’s Who directory in media and entertainment, including such giants as YouTube, Disney, NBC Universal, CBS, Fox, Lifetime, and E! to name but a few.

Van Gronigen said he brought Invisible Children into the agency as a pro bono client and did a considerable amount of the agency’s work on the nonprofit’s website. Eventually, he was so engrossed in Invisible Children’s mission that he left the agency and went to work for the nonprofit.

Then he got the idea that he could continue to help Invisible Children and help other nonprofits succeed too, so he launched Fifty and Fifty, which, among other things, designed, created and manages the Invisible Children website.

Digitaria is still involved with Invisible Children and the pros there “helped with the brainstorming behind ‘Kony 2012,'” said Van Gronigen.

But it wasn’t the magic of the agency pros that accounted for the great video production values. “Invisible Children was founded by filmmakers, and they leverage their own talent by producing the videos themselves,” said Van Groniigen. One of the cofounders is Jason Russell, an American film and theater director, choreographer, and the director of the viral video: “Kony 2012.”

While it may not be necessary to employ topnotch storytelling and production outfits to purposefully make a video worthy of going viral, it certainly doesn’t hurt. But for those nonprofits determined to go Hollywood on their own, there is a plethora of tools to aid your effort.

“Many mobile phone devices and inexpensive handheld video cameras such as the Flip provide high-quality digital video recording very inexpensively, and [there are] very easy tools for moving the video to a computer and online,” explained Eric Leland, a 15-year veteran in the nonprofit technology sector, and a partner in FivePaths.

“YouTube hosts a huge community for sharing videos, and offers simple tools for creating a free channel, uploading videos and integrating online donation tools,” noted Leland.

Unfortunately, these tools, alone or combined, may not be enough if your video truly goes viral.

Wax On, Wax Off

Before the video production, before the story was written, even before the first video brainstorming session, hours and hours of work was done in the real world by real people before real audiences.

“While the video was a huge catalyst, ‘Kony 2012’ was not an overnight success,” said Scott Chisholm, CEO of StayClassy, another longtime player on the Invisible Children team. Invisible Children was one of StayClassy’s first 50 clients. StayClassy is the fundraising platform that powers “Kony 2012.”

“This success happened over five years, with the last two years spent making sure each campaign feeds the next,” Chisholm added.

Indeed, Invisible Children spent time building real-world communities in campaign after campaign. The 25 Campaign, with the support of Oprah Winfrey, led the latest round in 2011.

“It was a peer-to-peer campaign, meaning the goal was to do screenings at thousands of high schools asking students to get involved and providing a fundraising page for their use,” explained Chisholm.

The Frontline Tour soon followed. “Each campaign lasts three months or so, with both online and offline activities in concert,” said Chisholm. “In the Frontline Tour, schools have their own pages and schools compete across the country in fundraising activities.”

“Kony 2012” came next and was designed from the outset to benefit from the existing communities. Before the video was made, thousands of young people were on standby, ready to click, like, retweet and otherwise promote it. And the website was designed to make sharing super easy for these kids. With such a pent-up groundswell behind it, “Kony 2012” almost couldn’t help but be an “instant” success.

“The video had a simple, compelling message that was easy for fans to retell,” said Chisholm. “It was easy to cast an opinion on social media, so even if the video was not watched, the message got through.”

The result of priming a community to respond en masse was unprecedented.

“With the Oprah 25 Campaign, 40,000 unique visitors to the website actually clicked through to the donation page,” said Chisholm. “By comparison, the “Kony 2012″ video brought 800,000 people to the donation page in a single day.”

“The takeaway is that Invisible Children is really good at community engagement and community building, and their offline work is extremely effective,” he added.

By the Numbers

The following metrics, which are reflective only of Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” donation page for the first week of the Kony 2012 campaign from March 5-11, 2012, reveal the astounding success of the effort after its release and prior to the surge of critics. These numbers are provided by StayClassy. Traffic:

  • 1.7 million visitors to Invisible Children’s donation page
  • 95 percent of visitors were new visitors to this page
  • 15 percent came from a mobile device (top 3 devices were iPhone, iPad and iPod touch)
  • 57K Facebook shares on donation page

Visits by Source:

  1. Youtube
  2. Facebook
  3. Vimeo
  4. Youtube Mobile
  5. Tumblr


  • 8K concurrent donations happening at peak
  • Average Donation Amount US$23 — about 1/3 the size of the average donation across all other organizations on StayClassy
  • 24 percent of the donors chose to make their donation a monthly recurring donation (StayClassy normally sees 1-3 percent recurring selection)
  • “Facebook people were more likely to donate than those on Twitter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook brought more traffic to the video or the website overall,” explained Chisholm.

    In other words, the “visits by source” ranking above is based not solely on visitors to the website, but on visitors that clicked all the way through to the donation page.

    Viral Fires and IT Firemen

    A video that goes viral is a mixed blessing for nonprofits and corporations alike.

    “We hit our traffic goals in two days and had to deal with 30,000 concurrent users at any given time,” said Van Gronigen. In other words, the success of the video was crashing the website.

    Originally the site was on servers at Rackspace, but the hosting arrangement soon proved to be inadequate for that much traffic, Van Gronigen said. “We expected that amount of traffic over an entire year, not days, so we were not prepared. We had the nightmare of rebuilding on the run with the campaign in full swing.”

    Among the problems Van Gronigen said he encountered were “when things break, we had no idea if the audience was really growing that large, or if we were under attack by hackers and there were other problems — like how to deal with multiple countries and multiple currencies, and issues more common to a global enterprise than to a nonprofit’s fundraising campaign.”

    The solution Van Gronigen found was hosting on Amazon and integrating with enterprise technologies such as He and his team found themselves moving stores, shutting down blog servers, boiling down content, making static backups, and doing anything and everything to “keep five key things accessible.”

    “We discovered quickly that we were not building the house we thought we were, and we desperately needed enterprise-level help. Fortunately, some of the enterprise technology players reached out to us,” said Van Gronigen.

    The takeaway from his experience in keeping “Kony 21012” up and running despite the stampeding traffic?

    “There are some great enterprise solutions out there, but they are very expensive so don’t buy them on day one,” he said. “But do your homework and know about them ahead of time, so you know what to do and where to turn if you need to change course suddenly.”

Pam Baker has written hundreds of articles published in leading technology, business and finance publications. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology, eight books, and an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Internet Press Guild (IPG). She can be reached on Twitter at @bakercom1.

1 Comment

  • Kony 2012 went viral because this was an orchestrated war propaganda push. I think that the Kony 2012 campaign illustrates some very important things.

    * Sadly, well-intentioned people will believe almost any type of war propaganda if you dress it up with sad music and images about protecting the children. (and this is exactly what Kony 2012 is – they want to justify the US military industrial complex engaging in Africa) Nevermind how incorrect the facts are, nevermind how disastorous this would be, if it makes people feel good about themselves, even obvious war-propaganda can succeed in fooling the masses.

    * Businesses aren’t the only ones looking to alter public opinion on social media. You see the hype with Facebook – businesses are promoting their Facebook URL on TV ads, you see dozens and dozens of businesses listed at that do nothing other than promote Facebook pages. Now the government is trying to alter public opinion through these viral channels. That’s something that well-intentioned people need to be looking out for.

    * A lot of this interest in Africa by the US military industrial complex is standard profiteering (more weapons for sale, resource grabs, etc) but a big part of it is heading off China and Russia who have interests in the region. This is all part of a big global chess-game. We’re heading towards an open conflict with some of these countries soon. They’ve been making threats about us going into Iran causing WWIII and at some point the US is going to be smack up against China and Russia and this is the wrong way to go

    .* If you want to alleviate suffering and poverty in Africa, donate to reputable charities like Doctors without Borders and many others that will provide actual aid to people in need rather than advocating more weapons flooding into the region, which is the end result of what the the Kony 2012 folks want.

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