If you're a teenager, you probably hadn't heard of Joseph Kony last week. This week, you probably couldn't avoid him.
"If I log onto Facebook or Twitter any time during the day, it's my entire news feed, basically," says Patrick Franks, an 18-year-old senior at Loyola Blakefield High School, outside Baltimore.
Franks is referring to a film produced by the nonprofit group Invisible Children. Its 30-minute video about the mass murderer in central Africa, "Kony 2012," is approaching 60 million views on YouTube this week, with millions more watching on other video-sharing sites.
The film has placed unprecedented focus on Kony, whose rebel group began terrorizing Uganda in 1986 and is responsible for the abductions, rapes and deaths of thousands of children. The video has also drawn critics who say it is too manipulative and oversimplifies a complex problem.
But it is an amazing success story in terms of an advocacy group being able to draw attention to an issue that has been largely ignored for a quarter-century. Invisible Children's techniques will be closely studied, if not widely imitated, by other nonprofits.
And, indeed, anyone else with a message to promote.
"This is something that marketing experts dream of every day, to get a response to their campaign about a cause," says Marcus Messner, who teaches social media at Virginia Commonwealth University.
An Army Of Followers
"Kony 2012" is the kind of overnight success that takes years to create. The film was first uploaded to YouTube on Monday, but its ability immediately to engage a burgeoning audience was the result of years of preparation.
Over the past eight years, Invisible Children had produced 11 earlier films, all of which it had screened at high schools nationwide.
"I've heard of Invisible Children before," says Maeve White, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in suburban Washington, D.C. "They've come to my school and they've done work with some bands that I've heard of."
The group was also aggressive in building up its social networks. Before releasing "Kony 2012," Invisible Children had 444,461 fans on Facebook, according to a spokesman for the group, and 54,375 followers on Twitter.
Those numbers have since climbed above 2.5 million and 380,000, respectively. But the point is that Invisible Children already had a substantial following in place to help promote the new video when it launched.
"The good lesson is to build your network before you need it," says Beth Kanter, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit, a book about using social media.
Referring to Jason Russell, the group's co-founder and the central figure in the video, Kanter says, "He spent years organizing young people, getting kids in high school and college to own it and organize on his behalf."
Clear And Compelling
If Invisible Children had carefully laid the groundwork for its latest film, it also executed both its launch and the quality of its content quite well, says Messner, the VCU professor.
"It really takes an emotional approach to capture an audience's attention for 30 minutes," he says. "When you want to bring attention to an issue that's on nobody's mind, you need to break it down and make it a story about individual lives."
Last month, Kevin Allocca, the trends manager for YouTube, gave a TED talk about the qualities that viral videos tend to have. These include showing something unexpected, creating a community of interest around the subject matter and gaining the attention of "tastemakers" — celebrities — who can help promote videos through their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
"Kony 2012" managed to tick off every item on that list. Invisible Children started with a substantial fan base, and its video was spread thanks to sharing by the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian.
The inflection point seemed to come, as with so many other modern marketing and entertainment phenomena, when Oprah Winfrey sent out a tweet.
Easy To Share
For highly networked young people, sharing the film was something that was easy and felt good to do.
"Their call to action is to make this guy famous," says Alison Decker, a 19-year-old sophomore at Northwestern University. "Something as simple as sharing a video makes it really easy to help their cause and raise awareness."
Decker suggests that the film speaks powerfully to young people in part because they can identify with Kony's victims — children themselves who've been pressed into sex slavery or made to serve in his army.
"It tugs on your heartstrings," she says. "You just passed out of that phase of childhood and you can't imagine being a child soldier."
Like a lot of adults, Kanter first heard about the film because her 12-year-old son said everyone at school was talking about it.
Telling any story at a sixth-grade level, she says, is a good way to reach a mass audience.
"Nonprofits don't do that so well," Kanter says. "They don't tell the story of one person, something that's emotionally compelling."
What Happens Next?
An informal survey of teenagers and other young people at the Galleria mall, outside St. Louis, suggests that Joseph Kony now has the kind of name recognition that Harry Potter might envy.
But one question that's been raised repeatedly by critics of Invisible Children is whether simply raising awareness among young people — awareness that's sketchy and incomplete — is enough to help the cause of capturing Kony.
But the film represents only a first step, says Messner, the VCU professor.
For any group with a cause, he says, the starting point is gaining people's attention. Once you have it, you can then help whatever fraction of people who do gain a deeper interest to find out more information and figure out how to act.
"It's a great thing to bring to the forefront of people's minds," says Franks, the high school senior in Maryland. Many of his classmates have begun sending out tweets, he says, calling on people to do more than simply watch and share the film.
For himself, Franks says he might write to his representative in Congress, but first he wants to do more research on Kony and Invisible Children. He's read some of the coverage that calls into question the way the group spends charitable contributions.
As for the video itself, Franks says, "I watched about half of it, because I ended up having to do homework."