Skip to main content

Screen grab from Kony2012 video.

This week, tens of millions of people shared a slick, 29-minute video about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony that had been created by the little-known San Diego activist organization Invisible Children.

Seven years after the launch of YouTube, the practice of making videos go viral is still an imperfect art rather than a science. "It's like catching lightning in a bottle," says Ted Welsh, the vice-president and creative operations officer of the Toronto ad agency BBDO Canada. "You get a lot of people going, 'Let's make a viral video.' " To which he sometimes thinks: " 'Yeah, and while we're at it, do you want me to create the next Facebook, too?' "

While nobody can say for certain what made the video and campaign catch on, there are five ingredients in Kony2012 that others have deployed to help content go viral.

Tell them a secret

Kony2012 has an almost conspiratorial cant, suggesting (despite coverage over the years in major media outlets) that some people have tried to keep Joseph Kony under the radar. "The problem is, 99 per cent of the planet doesn't know who Kony is," says the video's voiceover. "If they knew, Kony would have been stopped long ago."

Framing the message as a secret worked for beauty care brand Dove when its iconic Evolution video opened people's eyes to the damaging manipulations of the advertising industry. In 75 seconds, it carried viewers through an hours-long, time-lapse photo session, showing a plain-looking model being made up and photographed, and then her image endlessly tweaked with computer software until it fit the advertising industry's narrow concept of beauty. If most people already knew the basic facts of that manipulation, the video gave people the ability to easily share the story.

Tap celebrities

The video makers went all out on that score, urging viewers to target 20 celebrities each to help raise awareness. Many celebs duly did their part, including Justin Bieber (18 million Twitter followers) and Oprah Winfrey (9.6 million). The attention paid off.

Kony2012 was canny in its choice of public figures in the way it targeted people from many walks of life, from actor George Clooney to Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly. If there's some dissonance in seeing Rush Limbaugh right next to Bono in the Kony2012 chart of "culture makers," the campaign recognizes their followers are all equally important. Other celebs, perhaps envious at being left off the list, joined the call to action, too, including Diddy, who put the word out to his five million followers.

Celebrity attention can come out of the blue. Earlier this year, Walk off the Earth was just another band from Burlington, Ont., until Russell Crowe suggested in January that his more than 400,000 Twitter followers check out the group's understated video Somebody That I Used to Know; it has now been clicked on over 69 million times.

Everyone loves kids

Four hundred twenty-seven million viewers can't be wrong. The most popular non-commercial video on YouTube, Charlie Bit My Finger, is a 56-second slice of real life with kids: three-year-old Harry yelps out in pain as his younger brother Charlie chomps on his finger and doesn't let go. Some of the most popular YouTube videos play off the natural charm of the under-10 set, including last year's pint-sized Darth Vader Super Bowl spot, the Volkswagen commercial The Force.

One of the criticisms of the Kony2012 video is that its protagonist, the filmmaker and Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, explains to his young son, Gavin, that children his age are being taken from their parents by Joseph Kony and forced to kill. "But they're not gonna do what he says 'cause they're nice guys, right?" says Gavin, his beseeching eyes fixing his father just off camera.

Don't underestimate people's attention spans

At a staggering 30 minutes long, the video is an epic of mass proportion, as far as viral videos go. But it's not without precedence. Randy Pausch's 2007 inspirational video, The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, has racked up more than 14 million YouTube clicks – and spawned a bestselling book – despite running more than 75 minutes.

Length can be a calling card, flattering viewers into believing they are engaged with something meaningful. Kony2012 has one important advantage over Mr. Pausch's video and other relative epics: it has a large budget, with professional camera work, editing, stock footage and music that make it move swiftly.

Ask people to join a movement

Marketers don't just want you to buy their product any more; they want you to join a movement. Occupy Wall Street put a brand on the disenchantment of millions. The project known as It Gets Better, which sought to raise the self-esteem of gay, lesbian and transgender youth, caught fire in the fall of 2010 in part because many in the general public were upset about a rash of suicides within the LGBTQ community.

Kony2012 shows us sweeping, inspiring shots of youthful crowds who have already joined the Stop Kony movement; how can we resist? "This is very much in line with a lot of the Occupy stuff we've seen," says Dré Labre, creative director with the Toronto office of the ad agency Rethink. "It's Occupy Kony." Still, you probably have to pick your moments: you can't call on people if they're tired from the last big cause. Mr. Labre said one of his co-workers floated the possibility of a "cause gap."

"Haiti and the Red Cross burnt us out with its innovation in cause marketing and telethons," Mr. Labre explained. "So much so that the earthquake in Japan didn't seem to be as big a deal. It's been a while since we've all rallied around something."