Going viral to promote hygiene: four tips to get a million people dancing to a handwashing song

6 min read
Image: Epic Arts Cambodia

Creating a video that captures enough attention for it to go viral is no mean feat – getting one about hygiene to go viral is extraordinary. Monory Sarom, Communications and Campaigns Coordinator at WaterAid Cambodia, shares tips from her team’s creative approach to taking handwashing messaging to a million people.

In early 2016, WaterAid Cambodia and Epic Arts’ 'Wash It' music video reached more than a million viewers online and offline – a handwashing song that went viral! WaterAid Cambodia, one of the newest NGOs working on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the country, gained about 10,000 Facebook followers in just one week. And the film is now in the final three in the Innovative Prize Award for the Global WASH Future Conference 2018. Many people have asked us 'How did you do it?' 

Well, to be honest, we are not totally sure – the popularity of the song was beyond our expectations. However, we did follow a strategy, and we are sharing it here.  

1.    Get your message straight

We wanted to think outside the box to get important hygiene messages across. We thought: imagine if people listened to messages about serious content like handwashing with soap as they would listen to a song. How many more people would pick up the message? And imagine if we did not lecture to them about changing behaviour, but showed them through a music video. Would that work? And what if we promoted the song and music video like a real music company does. Would it go viral? 

Our curiosity about these questions motivated us to get out of our comfort zone and experiment with something creative. 

We started out by being clear on the messages we want to convey:

  • Washing hands with soap (including when and how to) makes you look cool among your peers.
  • People with disabilities can be rock stars – they have the same creativity and potential as everyone else.

2.    Know your audience

As at the start of any project, we discussed key points such as objectives, who we are trying to reach, what could we do, and how do we reach our audience. 

We looked in more detail at the audiences we wanted to target – we learned what they like, how we could reach them, and what were the current trends or potential future trends affecting them.

We identified that we wanted to pilot a small idea to engage with young people, because they are the majority population in Cambodia and also the segment of the population that has been missed in WASH work so far. Youths are also relatively easy to reach – most have access to the internet, especially using Facebook as a platform to engage with others and get information. Plus, there are a number of youth-focused platforms and events to potentially partner or collaborate with. 

Once we set the target audience, we figured out what content they like. We learned that although Facebook is key youths tend to fully manage the information they want to see or ignore. So just being on Facebook is not enough – our content needed appeal to them. 

We looked into the most recent viral online trends – for example, the PPAP song. It was clear that to attract youths’ attention we needed to create something fun that popped up at the right moment and was interactive, enabling them to comment, share and start a conversation. 

3.    Enlist creative partners

We are very fortunate in Cambodia to partner with a fantastic inclusive arts organisation called Epic Arts. Over the past few years we have developed a series of engaging pieces of content with them to promote concepts of accessible and inclusive WASH for people with a disability (such as animations, silent films and the Count Me In drama). 

We worked closely with the team to define the objectives and target audience, then Epic Arts worked their creative magic to come up with the song and ideas for the video. The content Epic Arts generated was superb, and made the next steps a lot easier. 

A bonus outcome of this project for us was establishing new relationships and engaging with respected companies. Before potential partners heard the song we could sense some hesitation, but after they heard the quality they were confident to engage with us – we learned that having good material inspired them to collaborate with us.

4. Plan the dissemination

Planning how to distribute and promote the material is key to going viral. Although online seems to hold the bigger audiences, offline outreach activities boost engagement with target audiences. So, we found a balance between the two.

Online – Facebook, YouTube and SmartApp

We published the video on WaterAid Cambodia’s Facebook page on a weekend two weeks before the Khmer New Year Festival, at the time of day that Facebook sees most youth traffic. Within one night it already had around 10,000 views, and our followers and interactions were increasing significantly.   

A week later we published on YouTube and SmartApp – one of the most-used free music apps in Cambodia, popular with young people. With SmartApp, streaming is free but downloads cost US$0.75. Our song reached around 5,000 users for streaming and very few downloads, which is normal. The most popular downloads are mostly sad, heartbreaking songs rather than happy, dancing songs – something for us to consider next time. 

Offline/outreach – concerts, flash-mob, meet and greet and festivals

We released to coincide with the Khmer New Year festival because people are generally in a party mood and looking for news songs to listen and dance to. Also there were many events to take advantage of during this period, from a massive festival at Angkor Wat to small events at schools. 

  • The Mic Concert: Here Epic Arts’ performers performed in front of an audience (of 1,500 university students) for the first time. The response was phenomenal, with the audience clapping along, learning the dance moves on stage and joining in a quiz about handwashing. This gave the performers confidence. The song was picked up by the online media present, and we launched it online shortly after the concert. 
  • Meet and greet: Held at the biggest shopping mall in Cambodia, this gave the artists another chance to reach out to their audience and the media. Young people took selfies with the performers in a special selfie booth. 
  • Sangkran Festival: During the Khmer New Year Festival there are many ‘Sangkran’ festivals across the country where people sing and dance. Wash It was performed at one of these large festivals, and many high school, university and private youth groups danced to the song as part of their celebrations.  
  • Concert screenings: The video was screened at a few concerts over this period, such as a huge concert featuring K-Pop sensation Rain. Some of the young artists from Wash It were part of the supporting act for Rain. Being linked to this event gave the song credibility. Wash It was also played at the Glastonbury Festival in the UK. 

Momentum and inspiration

For the WaterAid Cambodia team and our partner Epic Arts, the excitement we felt watching Wash It go viral was massive and has inspired us to move on to our next collaboration together. We are halfway through the creative production – watch this space…