What brands can learn from Kony2012

I was traveling on March 8 when the Kony2012 video first began to gain traction on YouTube. My college-age daughter sent me the link and said, "You really should watch this." By the time I got around to viewing it on March 10, some 60 million people had seen the video. Two days later, that figure had risen to 71 million. Today the figure is over 84 million.

The New York Times recently carried a column that offered a number of criticisms about Kony2012. It mentioned, among other points, that Mr. Kony has already gone into hiding and that many Africans resent the notion that only Western outsiders can solve Africa's problems.The author also raises the specter of important foreign policy decisions being decided and directed by the "shallow political power of the public."

In my view, these criticisms miss the point completely. Web 2.0 is a reality today and the "political power of the public" -- shallow or not -- is here to stay. Some 80 million people around the world use Facebook regularly to share content they created or discovered with their friends and family.

What brands can learn from Kony2012

The real question is what can brands learn from the Kony2012 phenomenon and how should it impact future social media marketing?

What makes Kony2012 different as a marketing campaign is its distinct "call to action" with a credible message, its goal of empowering its audience, and its reliance on web-based social media. Let's take these one at a time:

A call to action

Kony2012 is focused on the crimes of Joseph Kony of course. But in reality, the video's real target is its audience. These are primarily young people and the video is carefully designed to educate, inspire, and activate them.

As such, Kony2012 is a highly successful example of a new type of advertising we call "mission driven marketing." A mission-driven marketing campaign is one where the brand defines the topic, or the subject of a "conversation with consumers," and empowers them to join in the discussion and share their point of view through their own content. Mission-driven campaigns frequently include elements of games or prizes and thus they inject fun into the process.

Authentic content

This is very different from a traditional marketing campaign, where messages created by the brand or its advertising agency are "pushed" out towards the audience. In a mission-driven campaign, brands provide the tools necessary to allow the members of the community to express themselves and to view, vote, and comment on the contributions of others. Although the brand launches each "conversation," it does not control it in the traditional sense. Instead, it "curates" the discussion and allows the community to grow and develop around the content that users contribute. As a result, the conversation has an authentic quality.

Why is it important to be authentic? Because consumers are savvy and they know the difference. "Genuine user-content," in contrast to agency or brand-produced content, has a much greater emotional impact on the audience. Viewers recognize that user-generated content conveys the real-life stories of people just like themselves. As a result, this type of material has a much greater power to influence audience members than anything created by an advertising agency or marketing department.

The Kony2012 video deployed user-generated content in the form of touching interviews carried out with Joseph, the refugee from Uganda and Gavin, the son of the film's director. Who was not moved when Joseph broke down telling us how he would like to meet his murdered brother some day "in heaven?" These were simple but powerful elements that inspire viewers to take up the mission.

Empower your audience

Challenging and inspiring your audience are necessary steps toward building a successful mission-driven marketing campaign. Once this is achieved, a third element is required -- empowerment.

It won't do much good to inspire your audience and encourage them to find their voice if you cannot provide them with the means with which to express themselves. Kony2012 uses traditional communications tools such as branded posters, bracelets, and flyers, which are sent out to each contributor as a kind of starter-kit for engagement on the issue. The audience is also encouraged to share the video link with their friends through social media.

In doing so, the producers of Kony2012 are "empowering" their audience to take on the mission they have posed. For brands running mission-driven marketing campaigns, "empowered" audiences must be allowed to:

  • Find their voice
  • Share their creativity in the form of their own user-generated content
  • Network among their friends and encourage them to support the mission

Conversation not monologue

Empowerment works because it is fun. People enjoy connecting and sharing with each other. It also shifts the balance between brand and consumer because consumers don't feel like a passive audience. Instead, they feel like they have a voice and can share their views with others brought together under the umbrella of the mission.

Mission-driven marketing actually feels more like entertainment than advertising. As a result, it offers the opportunity to create "pull" rather than "push" campaigns where consumers actively seek out opportunities to engage through the communities the brand has brought together.

Brands that build "mission-driven marketing" campaigns into their broader advertising strategies can reap important benefits. By placing their brand at the center of a series of conversations with consumers built around user content, they can inspire and empower the very people they would like to develop and keep as long-term customers. The rapid spread of Kony2012 shows just how powerful these campaigns can be.

Tom Tesluk is the CEO and co-founder of MissionID, Inc.

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