Invisible Children's Web Strategist Gives A Crash Course In Going Viral

Javan Van Gronigen of Fifty & Fifty, the firm behind Kony2012, talks about building the campaign to withstand a boom, a backlash, and a bust.

Invisible Children's Kony2012 video became the most-watched viral video for a nonprofit cause in Internet history. Then the web's debunking reflex kicked in. Despite having powerful defenders, the critics seem to have shaken cofounder Jason Russell, who had a very public, naked breakdown just blocks from Sea World. (Score one for the skeptics?)  

Fast Company recently had the opportunity to speak with Javan Van Gronigen, the San Diego-based digital strategist and web designer behind Invisible Children's viral new media campaign. Van Gronigen's firm, Fifty & Fifty, is a digital studio that works with Fortune 500 firms and nonprofits such as Invisible Children, World Vision, and Charity: Water. We initially spoke with Van Gronigen before Russell's neurotic boogaloo seized the narrative. We kept the focus on tactics and strategy behind the Kony2012 campaign, rather than any of the tabloid hijinks that followed, in part because Van Gronigen's job was mostly done by then, but also because we wanted to know whether Fifty & Fifty had built something that could weather storms. Van Gronigen's experience includes lessons he learned when all hell broke loose. And they apply to all manner of hell.  

FAST COMPANY: Can you tell us a little about Fifty & Fifty, and your involvement with Invisible Children? How did you get started?

JAVAN VAN GRONIGEN: We aren’t out to save the world, but to tell the world of those who are. At Fifty & Fifty, it’s our mission to see good causes take up more of the popular-culture space. We want to help do more than sell a product; we want to engage the world in the worthwhile. And because of this, we choose to work with people and missions that are socially and ethically defensible. To date we’ve partnered with clients promoting education, sustainable peace, political action, youth engagement, fundraising, and creative arts. And we’re just getting started.

I founded Fifty & Fifty two and a half years ago, after working directly for Invisible Children for three years. The reason was simple—there was a massive need in the nonprofit space for strong interactive that could both tell a story and encourage people to get involved. We had been doing that for years at Invisible Children; they were gracious enough to stick with us as we ventured out to offer our services to other humanitarian organizations and projects. Since then we've partnered with over two dozen other organizations like World Vision, Project7, Artists for Peace and Justice, and many more.

To this day, we still work with Invisible Children on everything they do. There is also a great relationship with Digitaria where I worked before Invisible Children. They have been a great support and have shared in a lot of the strategy and ideation on campaigns like Kony2012.

What was your role in the Kony 2012 campaign, and how did it develop over time?

We work very closely with Invisible Children on everything, and Kony2012 was no different. Invisible Children developed the high-level concepts of the campaign and came to us to design, build, and manage the site itself. It was a six-week build-out, which was extremely fast, and it had to be prepared in time for their nationwide screening tour that was set to begin February 23rd. The online film premiere was March 5th. We were given the goal of the campaign, which was to "Make Kony Famous," so we set out to build the site to do exactly that. We knew that we had to push the film and we knew that the film needed to be shared, so we focused a lot of effort on making the social aspects of the site as easy as possible.

Our philosophy centered on "one-click" engagements, and on making tweeting policy and culture makers a no-brainer—something someone can do with minimal effort. Adding to that strategy was the concept that messaging people with big networks would pay on in viral growth and it did. Messaging culture and policy makers directly not only influenced people's networks but spread the word about the film faster than we could have ever thought possible.

The process of keeping the sites live was a full-time job, as every day brought new problems.

What was the original strategy for Kony 2012, and did it change when the video went viral?

Everything had to change when the film went viral. We expected these types of numbers but we expected to get them throughout the year. We shattered all of the goals we had set within two days. The film was nearing 100 million views faster than any other viral film, the website was pushing 30,000 concurrent users for two straight days and when the dust settled, we reached just shy of 9 million unique users in seven days.

That type of traffic requires a lot more than your average load balancer and caching setup. We had to move more and more of the companies' online services onto completely cloud-based solutions like Amazon S3 and reroute a lot of the traffic funnels that were coming in. The process of keeping the sites live was a full-time job as every day brought new problems: database speeds not capable of taking pledges fast enough, sales force accounts capping out, email services like Postmark hitting their limits, Facebook wall posts eventually blocked, Rackspace thinking our servers were under DoS attacks, and more.

The strategy of tracking user interactions and what they were doing for the campaign was something that quickly had to go on hold. The numbers were cranking up quickly and managing a site without powerful caching was no longer an option. The story got out quickly and was continuing to grow so we had to abandon some site functionality in exchange for uptime reliability. The original site can be seen at missions.kony2012.com.

What was the reaction at Invisible Children when the video went viral?

There was a lot of celebrating when the film started to get such attention. It then quickly moved into strategy as the numbers became alarming. Orders for Action Kits kept coming in and donations were adding up and everyone quickly realized that the organization and its strategy for the year had to change quickly. It was still a great celebration but everyone had a lot of work to do to manage the amount of attention the film was getting.

Can you explain what Invisible Children did differently with the Kony2012 campaign to get this reaction?

I think there were a lot of reasons why this film did what it did. We had the international premiere, which got everyone online sharing the film on one day. One Click Sharing allowed sharing and tweeting to be done with the greatest level of simplicity, so that a user could easily tweet and share the film with friends within minutes. Invisible Children also has a great network. They have always toured and met their supporters face to face, so when a film came out that needed sharing, there was an army of supporters ready to share it. We also had our celebrity strategy—Invisible Children has a lot of great followers and people who have supported them in the past, so a strategy to go after those people online really paid off.

How long did the Kony2012 campaign take to plan and execute?

I can only speak to our involvement. I know the rough ideas were being hashed out in December, but by the New Year there was a pretty good direction in place. It was a matter of figuring out how to implement those ideas into an online experience. We had six weeks from idea phase to completion of the site, and we worked tirelessly to make that happen. Digitaria was helpful in the ideation phase and in helping strategize, but once the work started, it was all on us to design, build, and maintain the campaign and its implementation.

Interview has been edited for readability.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Homepage image: Flickr user Micke Kazarnowicz; top, thumbnail image: Flickr user Robert Raines]

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