Kony Part One – Invest in Your Network

So. The Kony campaign from Invisible Children. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

This campaign didn’t just happen one week. Years of network building went into it (among other things). Years.

Our concern (as Bright+3, an organization that helps organizations understand and succeed in the digital/networked world) is how this campaign has become as powerful and visible (and controversial) as it has.

To that end we want to share two wonderful pieces written in the past 24 48 hours. First, Jason Mogus at Communicopia writes “Why your nonprofit won’t make a Kony 2012” (And it almost certainly won’t. So sorry.)

The second piece, “[Data Viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention,” was written by Gilad Lotan at SocialFlow.

Kony Network map
Kony Network map via SocialFlow

Jason Mogus itemizes how many (most?) large nonprofit advocacy organizations fall short in key capacities that are needed to put together and implement a campaign such as this. Those capacities (where many are falling short) might be summed up as:

  • Weak network. Organizations haven’t engaged people directly in person and are not even talking with them online. We think this is the largest of the big kahunas in this story. More below.
  • Lack of focus. Programs and communications are all over the map. Organizations working on many campaigns likely have many audiences. They don’t have the communications resources to speak clearly to everyone.
  • Policy trumps people. This is a tough one (see Ethan Zuckerman’s piece on real questions about oversimplifying complexity). How does a policy and research driven organization write clearly, passionately, and understandably for large audiences that it wants to engage in action? Most don’t try or when they do it’s muddied by the policy wonks.
  • Social web. Huh? Organizations that build lists (even networks, which are different than lists!) aren’t aligned with social network principles – the sauce that is interaction and multi-channel communications. If you’re going to build networks (or at least tap into them) your organization needs to be comfortable with social from top to bottom.

Jason speaks to the power and value of Invisible Children’s online/offline network that was critical to spreading word of this campaign. Building and caring for this sort of network takes time, focus, and a style of constituent interaction that most advocacy organizations are not built for or interested in.

It is this direct network building offline (especially) and online that, like a massive holiday lighting display, was switched on when the most recent campaign began.

Network Dissected

Gilad Lotan dives into greater detail of how the Invisible Children network functioned to effectively spread word of the campaign. Sure, there was a great video with a fabulously told story (see this piece by Anna Keenan for more on the importance of story and shared values in the Kony campaign), but it was a 30 minute video about human rights issues. Boring.

The network had been primed to act. The people that Invisible Children had met, invited to participate, and continually engaged over the years understood the issues and have been trained to act and share. The pre-existing networks created by Invisible Children over time were, through social media connections, able (and willing) to rapidly (and strongly) share the video and its message.

Lotan also points out that the campaign designed and positioned itself well to tap into the online networks of celebrities that appealed to its core audience. Invisible Children made it easy for supporters to tweet Taylor Swift, Oprah, and others with their own large Twitter followings. This demonstrates comfort with and understanding of networks.

Some, including Lotan, point out that this network is decidedly young (which tracks with social media engagement in general) and skews towards evangelical Christians. The latter is a well-organized network in its own right, one built on personal relationships (see Movement Building and Deep Change: A Call to Mobilize Strong and Weak Ties from the Engage Network for more on this).

What of It?

Jason Mogus makes the point that most organizations do not run their communications, digital, and programs in a way that makes a Kony-esque campaign possible. They are neither network focused nor social. And, for many organizations, this is okay. Policy and political expertise, lobbying and legal capacity, and research expertise are all desperately needed in the advocacy community.

The conflict in organizations comes from the fact that policy and lobbying organizations relentlessly invest in building online and offline lists in email, social media and direct mail. The “list” is the mythical source of unrestricted funding. Much of this list building comes through advocacy actions: “sign this petition” and “write to your Senator” (what some label as slacktivism).

These lists are called upon to respond to get behind big events, actions, fundraising campaigns and videos that should “go viral.” Online teams in these organizations struggle to light a fire under their lists, go big, and make an impact that the size of the list would imply is possible.

A friend wrote in an email that network communications like that shown in the Kony campaign isn’t in the DNA of policy-oriented organizations. We agree but that’s too bad. Network building, engagement, and policy advocacy shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.


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