It's one of the failings of viral social media campaigns that fail to redirect interest and energy into a tangible outcome. People might have piled on the campaign online, but only the smallest of fractions took action. Even when April 20 rolled around as the first bellwether of the campaign, the majority of those who took an interest in the online film (or at least the popularity of it) lost interest or avoided it all together. In other words, most people heard the message and then shrugged their shoulders, some in disgust.
None of that means the campaign didn't have its noble moments or that Invisible Children didn't raise some additional dollars or enlist a few more activists that they didn't have before. But for nonprofits hoping to harness the Internet, emulating this so-called viral success story does more harm than good.
How Kony 2012 made people tune in and then tune out.
While the case study isn't over per se (and Alexa isn't the most accurate measure), traffic spikes to Invisible Children tell a different story than the one the organization insists happened. They flash a few singular poster shots, inferring that everyone woke up to cities blanketed in campaign material.
The real story shows that the campaign spiked in early March, spiked again when the filmmaker was arrested, and sustained only a fraction of interest on their first event day, April 20, before its awareness entered its final death throes. Invisible Children, in the interim, is attempting to salvage it all.
Having worked on several successful social cause campaigns with Amnesty International, March of Dimes, Acts Of Kindness, and AIDS.gov, I immediately knew spikes are all wrong. In those four campaigns (and others), the event day traffic spikes are 100 times greater than the launch, which is indicative of an event that cumulates into a specific action. People participate, take action, and raise more awareness than the campaign launch.
For the Kony 2012 campaign, people were made aware but most didn't take action. Worse, the rationale to the campaign might be best summed up with a study by Relevation Research, which found people who dump a brand online are more likely to distance themselves from the brand after they dump it. Once that happens, it is much more difficult to get their attention again, no matter how important (even more important) the next set of messages might be.
It's not that dissimilar to telemarketing callers and overindulgent direct mail. Consumers are generally receptive to the first call if they have a natural interest in the product or service. But if the telemarketer calls back over and over again (whether the person expressed an interest or not) or the direct mail/email spam begins to pile up, the consumer slides from mildly interested to disinterested to despondent to annoyed to retaliatory.
When controversy is the campaign, it only creates more controversy.
In studying Kony 2012 as a living case study, there were dozens of details that campaign organizers overlooked. But the most pressing for cause marketers to avoid is centering campaigns on controversy.
Sure, controversy is one proven method to capture media attention. But the problem with controversy is that is cannot be effectively channeled into positive action. Instead, it's like a car accident — people rubberneck to look, are immediately taken by what they see, and then they keep driving.
For Kony 2012, the controversy mostly revolved around the notion that you have to make villains or villainy "famous" before people will take action against it. It's not true, despite being a common premise. Statistically, when people are faced with a problem that is perceived to be insurmountable, they are less likely to take action. Instead, they exhibit signs of learned helplessness.
The people that Invisible Children ought to "make famous" are not Kony and his cronies, but rather everyone else — the individuals taking action to bring Kony to justice and the victims who have become strong enough to move past their often horrific injuries and speak out. Likewise, the organization could do better than talking about what "they" set out to do, what "they" did, and what "they" are asking you to do next.
They didn't do anything beyond making a film and some bracelets to peddle. Sure, that is something. But it's also nothing compared to what some of "you" did. And highlighting specific individual accomplishments around the world would have likely redirected the focus on the better goal — putting an end to the issue once and for all.
This might seem like a small thing, but it isn't. If you want people to do good, the point of empowerment is proven not by the organization but by the collective action of individual people who believe and then demonstrate that the power of one among many can make a difference. But that doesn't seem to be what the Kony 2012 campaign is really about, which is why it is fizzling out.