Using YouTube to Launch a Global Movement: The Story of Free Hugs

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The rise of phenomenally viral videos on YouTube is happening every day now, ranging from the silly to the funny.  Recently I came across the Free Hugs video posted above on YouTube less than two months ago and loved it.  Aside from making me miss living in Sydney, it struck me as a wonderful social commentary, music video and promotion for the Sick Puppies (the band recording the soundtrack), and plea for people to just be nicer to one another.  On the official campaign website, Juan Mann (the originator) talks about the story of why he started the campaign:

I’d been living in London when my world turned upside down and I’d had to come home. By the time my plane landed back in Sydney, all I had left was a carry on bag full of clothes and a world of troubles. No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.  Standing there in the arrivals terminal, watching other passengers meeting their waiting friends and family, with open arms and smiling faces, hugging and laughing together, I wanted someone out there to be waiting for me. To be happy to see me. To smile at me. To hug me.  So I got some cardboard and a marker and made a sign. I found the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and held that sign aloft, with the words "Free Hugs" on both sides.

There is also a recap of the history behind the campaign outlined in a Wikipedia entry, which offers some great perspective on how quickly this viral video has really grown into an international campaign.  According to the entry, as of yesterday – the video has more than 6.4 million page views, making it the 14th most viewed of all videos on the site.  Juan Mann even published a thank you video on YouTube noting that the campaign is continuing and asking people to visit www.freehelpcampaign.org to make a difference. 

There are many lessons in here for any social marketer looking to use viral videos and YouTube as a springboard for launching a cause related effort.  In particular, here are a few elements that I believe have made this campaign such a runaway success in such a short time:

  1. The video tells a compelling story – Just as good documentaries and movies do, there is a connection with the main character, an element of conflict when he is banned from hugging, and a redemption as he overcomes this barrier.
  2. Sharing the video is a "safe" personal statement – By sending the video to someone else, you are making a personal statement that you believe more hugs could make your day better.  It is simple and non-controversial.  Unlike email chain letters, political statements or potentially misinterpreted jokes, this is one of the few "safe" videos to send to someone.
  3. The emotional themes used are universal – The video starts out with loneliness as a key emotional theme, and continues through a journey to happiness and even love among strangers.  Unlike many social marketing campaigns trying to make a point about a disease or condition that people cannot truly understand unless they have a personal experience – Free Hugs is something anyone can connect with.

Though the campaign is "only" about hugs, there is a great lesson in here for any social marketers about using new media as a way to build interest and passion in your cause.  I suspect the Free Hugs campaign has only just started it journey towards being an international phenomenon.  Visit the Free Help site the Juan Mann has launched (with support from Oprah) to see what you can do to join the movement.

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