Don’t dismiss the Kony 2012 campaign as a “flash in the pan” until you’ve given plenty of thought to the power of name recognition (and how hard it is to quantify)

FLASH IN THE PAN? NOT SO FAST. Everyone was quick to dismiss the KONY 2012 campaign based on the almighty “metrics” like this one from Google Analytics that shows a flurry of attention and what appears to be a loss of interest. But “name recognition” has a much longer effect and is hard to quantify. Think of this graph as being like a graph of “infection exposure” for a disease that makes you aware of the name Kony. A whole bunch of people were exposed quickly, and I mean a WHOLE bunch. More importantly, people need to be exposed only once to learn the name (which is extremely important in today’s noisy world), so if you think of this as a graph of exposure, you don’t need the level of activity to stay at a plateau. Just hitting the key crowd once is sufficient.



From the very start of our Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project in 2002 I began hearing from environmental folks the proud and defiant question of, “So where’s yer metrics, dude?” It’s a question that’s both reasonable AND the source of the movement’s colossal failures to communicate these days.

What this means is that we’re not going to believe any thing you say is gonna work, or anything you did has worked, unless you show us hard, cold numbers. Which is the definition of “gutless” meaning you have no gut instincts whatsoever, you only know how to look at data and draw the same conclusion that anyone else would.

As soon as you develop this philosophy you’re pretty much doomed.



I’ve raved a lot in the past half year about the CDC’s awesome Zombie Disaster Preparedness Campaign. It sprung to life last May from a GUT INSTINCT. Not from metrics. Not from data. Just from three very cool people who had this powerful revelation that to motivate a certain part of the public to take an interest in the topic of disaster preparedness, literal mindedness (i.e. beating people over the head with the simple facts) had limited effectiveness, but there existed this extremely non-literal way to approach the problem (to match it with the idea of preparing for a zombie attack) that was explosive.

But as soon as they created their media attention mushroom cloud (they scored over $3 million free media coverage off a budget of $87), the metrics-obsessed sharks began circling. I’ve gotten a taste for what they’ve encountered when I’ve presented their amazing story in my talks. Almost every time, there is some proudly, defiantly skeptical person in the audience who asks, “Yes, but do they have ANY data to show that their project has actually changed anyone’s behavior?”

Well. There’s the old Dylan line, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” That’s about all I can think to say in response to that question. If you’re out in your driveway with branches from trees to the west of you flying at you at high speed, you really don’t need “the metrics” to be able to say the wind is blowing from the west. And when you score $3 million in media exposure it’s not “hot air” as many like to say. In today’s world, “attention” is THE currency (just read Richard Lanham’s book, “The Economics of Attention”).



A couple years ago at a workshop in D.C. I made mention of the courage of Al Gore and his group (despite all my specific criticisms of the movie itself) in stepping up and providing what is still the only clear and prominent voice of leadership for the issue of global warming (though Bill McKibben is slowly approaching a similar level of recognition). When I finished my comments one of Gore’s top people pulled me aside, thanked me for the words, and said it was absolutely true — there were no metrics that drove Al Gore, Laurie David and Lawrence Bender to make that movie — only a clear gut instinct that this was an important issue that the climate science world was failing to communicate to the general public.

And of course there’s the example I mentioned in my book of Ken Auletta’s great New Yorker article titled, “The New Pitch: Do Ads Still Work” in 2005. He talked about the hopelessness of metrics in an increasingly fragmented and narrow advertising world, then cited the example of Aflac as proof. Their quacking duck campaign arose not from mountains of polling data and surveys, but rather just from an executive with a powerful gut instinct to have some fun with the name of their company sounding like a duck. The rest was history as they doubled their business in four years without changing a thing other than the one ad campaign.

The climate movement is short on gut instinct, long on metrics obsession. That’s a bad combination. They should be watching and learning all they can from the KONY 2012 campaign. If you’re talking about it as a “flash in the pan,” you’re failing to appreciate the power of establishing name recognition in today’s attention-driven world.

It’s the things you can’t quantify (or can’t afford to take time to quantify) that matter most in the end.