How the Digital Team Behind KONY 2012 Made it Go Viral


By now you have probably heard about last year’s viral video hit, Kony 2012. In fact, you probably watched it a time or two (it now has nearly 100 million views), shared it with your personal and professional networks, and even commented on it. Seemingly coming out of nowhere and captivating our attention for weeks last year, the Kony 2012 video had a yearlong strategic campaign in place before it launched and a digital team behind it.

I had the opportunity to interview Javan Van Gronigen, founder and creative director of Fifty & Fifty, the California-based web and technology studio that put Kony 2012 on the map and made it a global sensation.

Jennifer James: As someone with great knowledge of how to turn one story into a viral hit, what do you see most nonprofits and NGOs do wrong when trying to tell their story through video?

Javan Van Gronigen: One of the places that most organizations fall short is in the quality of the production. There is value in using an outside resource that specializes in filmmaking and storytelling. To some extent the production quality will set a brand value to the person watching the video. Using an outside resource also allows for someone to come in with a different perspective and see it from a high level rather than getting caught up in all the details. In a lot of cases details are good, but when you are introducing your story to viewers it’s important to be focused and concise otherwise you could lose them in the small things.

Jennifer James: Did you know that the Kony 2012 video would race around the world so fast?

Javan Van Gronigen: We were not prepared for what would happen with the Kony video. There was some prep work done that would allow us to scale the servers and have a website that would handle a decent amount of traffic, but in reality there isn’t much you can do to know how something will go viral. Once we began to grasp the size and scale of the movement we were able to make some changes that allowed us to handle the traffic, but it definitely caught us off guard.

Jennifer James: After such a successful video, how do you top that or do you even want to?

Javan Van Gronigen: We always want to strive for doing things great, so in some element we would want to top that campaign, however rather than looking at doing it better I think we would want to do it different. The campaign was built to last the whole year of 2012 with the goal of long term engagement. When things went viral it took out the need and ability to engage supporters in the way we had planned, so in reality from a web prospective the campaign reshaped on the fly. It would be great to be able to plan for the type of traffic and size of movement that Kony created the next time we approach a campaign like this. Ultimately, a lot was learned and we look forward to being able to take what we learned from that campaign and apply it to a new project of the same nature.

Jennifer James: How can nonprofits and NGOs use limited resources to best tell their story and stand out from the crowd?

It’s really about just telling their story and not trying to make it into something else. Each organizations’ story is unique to their service, location, founder(s), etc. Just by telling the truth and communicating their unique story they will stand out. From a functionality standpoint video is a great medium for storytelling, but not always an option because of cost. When that is the case it’s important to have the right photography to supplement written content around a story. Web photos are an asset that is most effective when weaving the story of any organization through their web experience.

Jennifer James: What do you think is the overall state of digital storytelling?

Javan Van Gronigen: Storytelling and the process has become more of a trend as of late. We’ve seen how television and film have impacted lives because of good stories but it’s still early on in translating into the digital space. There are a few organizations such as Invisible Children and CharityWater that have done an exceptional job of telling their story online, but they are the bleeding edge in regards to the non-profit space. The digital state of storytelling will continue to progress as it becomes better understood and as it becomes more of what supporters and users are expecting.

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