'Kony2012' Sets Viral-Video Record

Nonprofit Invisible Children's Video Also Brings Swath of Criticism

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These days every marketer hopes for viral success, but when your campaign garners 70 million views in five days, you may want to pause for air. Which isn't exactly an option in a social-media world.

Jacob, abducted as a child by the LRA, is the emotional center of the KONY2012 video.
Jacob, abducted as a child by the LRA, is the emotional center of the KONY2012 video.

Not-for-profit group Invisible Children found itself in that situation last week as its 30-minute documentary-style video, "Kony2012," caught fire around the world, becoming the fastest-growing viral video to date. (The previous recordholder was U.K. "X Factor" contestant Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed a Dream," which took six days to hit the 70 million mark.)

"Kony2012," which seeks support for the arrest of Joseph Kony, an international war criminal known to abduct and force African children into combat, was uploaded to Vimeo two weeks ago.

According to Visible Measures, things stayed quiet until the launch of the social-media push Monday, March 5, when the video posted to YouTube. "The floodgates opened," said the company. By Wednesday, viewership jumped to 20 million with 200 video-response clips. The average run time for video responses was six minutes, showing a strong level of involvement among viewers. With the help of three trending topics on Twitter, recognition from the White House, and numerous media reports, the viewership jumped to 40 million views by Thursday.

But with success came some pretty heavy media and blog criticism, particularly regarding financials and manipulation of facts. According to Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities, Invisible Children gets two of four stars for transparency and accountability. Some critics contend that the group directs more money to media production and salaries than to direct services. Defenders hold that high administrative costs are an unpleasant reality of such groups -- and that Invisible Children is partly a media company, so production is one of its services.

Other critics took issue with the video's content. While it focuses on what Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army have done in Uganda, he and the group haven't been active in that country for years (which is actually addressed, albeit shortly, in the video). Still others took issue with the filmmakers' focus on themselves and what they contend is meddling by manipulative Westerners.

Invisible Children, which has released 11 other videos, was caught off guard by the success -- as well as the criticism. "We've gone on 11 tours around the U.S. where we just show documentaries -- that is our bread and butter," said Ben Keesey, CEO-executive director. "It was this crazy tipping point. We released it online just like all of our videos -- it just went viral."

The explosion left the group with no strategic plan on how to handle the sensation, though it has since enlisted PR agency Sunshine Sachs.

"The dialogue transferred from the issue to us," Mr. Keesey said. "Most of the posts that were negative didn't understand what we were doing. Our model is multipronged. It's hard for people to put us in a box. And whatever box they want to put us in, we're not trying to be in it."

So far, the campaign has two confirmed next steps: a "Cover the Night" event to blanket streets and homes with "KONY2012" materials; and a "Dancing for Good" marathon, during which supporters dance for 20 hours and 12 minutes.

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