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how to create movement that goes viral

Guest Post by Steve Harrison

This is a story about how a purple bracelet made Will Bowen famous…

Let me give you an example of someone who excels at turning his message into a media sensation.

When I was reading People magazine a few years ago, I came across a feature on a Midwestern minister named Will Bowen. I was impressed, because it’s very hard to get featured in People if you’re not a celebrity (or dating a celebrity).

Bowen had noticed that there had been a lot of complaining among his church members. So he told his congregation, “I’d like you to try to go 21 days without complaining.” Since that’s not an easy task, he decided it might help them to have a bracelet-like wristband to help remind them every day about their goal.

So he placed a large order for purple bracelets bearing this message: “A Complaint Free World.” He gave a bracelet to everyone in his congregation, and told them, “If you take my challenge, and notice that you start to complain about something, take off your bracelet and put it on your other wrist.”

That very simple act got people involved. Most of his church members found that they were complaining way too much and were shocked at how hard this challenge was.

They also started telling their friends about it and a lot of them wanted to try it too.

We caught up with Will Bowen to learn more about his very successful campaign and where he got his inspiration. Bowen says he was “bowled over by the response” to his idea, but is “loving every minute of it.”

“I think most people can agree on two things:

Number 1: There’s too much complaining in the world and Number 2: The world is not the way we want it to be,” Bowen says. “These things are related. We’re so busy griping about the way things are that we’re stuck in the mire and are perpetuating the problems.”

“I’d read a book that had recommended going 21 days without complaining,” Bowen remembers. “My twist on it was finding a unique way of monitoring this. Wearing a bracelet was a practical thing people could do–it was almost like making a game of it. It just exploded.”

When he first announced his challenge, the church immediately began getting requests for the bracelets. After he received thousands of requests, he set up a nonprofit association to distribute the bracelets and spread the word.

The snowball effect of great publicity

As time went by, A Complaint Free World got more and more word of mouth and media coverage.

Bowen really created–or stumbled upon–a mass movement.

His first breakthrough came when he contacted Helen Gray, the religion editor at his local newspaper, The Kansas City Star. She wrote a story about him that was picked up by the McClatchy News Service and ran in 35 other papers.

After he had distributed 50,000 bracelets, he got in touch with Gray again. This time, her follow-up article was picked up by 125 papers across the country. A Los Angeles Times reporter read this story and interviewed him. That article was seen by an NBC News producer, which led to Bowen’s Today show appearance.

It gets better.

A People magazine editor decided to write about Bowen after seeing him on Today.

Then Oprah’s staff saw the People article and invited him on her show.

After that, he lost count of the number of TV, radio and print interviews he’s done, including major features in The New York Times and Newsweek.

will bowen

will bowen authority about complaining

Although he does remember that for a 3-year period, he never did fewer than two interviews per week.

Naturally, all of this press led to a book deal.

Bowen didn’t have a book when he went on Oprah, but his agent sold it to a major publisher after a bidding war with several New York publishers. He’s since published two books about A Complaint Free World that have been released in over a dozen countries –and was surprised to learn that his first book was the #1 self-help bestseller in China for over a year.

This tremendous publicity also launched Bowen in a new career as a public speaker who has spoken to enthusiastic audiences around the world. It’s been quite a journey, and it’s not over yet.

What campaign or challenge can you offer?

Why did Bowen receive such an outpouring of popular support and media coverage for his quest to reduce complaining?

I think this story worked so well because it wasn’t just about one man. The press could cover what happened to a variety of people when they took this challenge. And radio or TV hosts or journalists could take the challenge themselves and talk about their experiences.

Here are a few takeaway tips to keep in mind if you want to start your own campaign:

  • Don’t just talk about solving problems– do something about them! It wasn’t until Bowen decided to take action to reduce the negativity around him that he became a newsmaker.
  • Take on a manageable challenge. Don’t try to solve world hunger or poverty in one go. Tackle something worthwhile that you have a shot at achieving. Bowen’s complaint-free challenge is just a small part of what he does in his church, but it put him on the map.
  • Be sincere and live your message. Bowen passed on this advice: don’t try to create a movement if you’re being self-serving. He believes people will sense your motivation and whether or not you believe in your cause. “If you’re just trying to make a buck, it’s bound to fail. But, if you’re trying to improve the lives and consciousness of this world, it can’t be stopped.”
  • When you have a passion for accomplishing your mission, you never know where it will take you. Since he began his challenge in July 2006, Bowen’s organization has distributed more than 11 million bracelets worldwide–and 2 million of those requests came in the first 24 hours after his Oprah appearance.

Imagine that!

I hope I’ve inspired you to think about ways you can challenge others to meet a worthy goal or to turn your mission into a campaign that people can rally around.

For more info on Will Bowen and A Complaint Free World, visit http://www.acomplaintfreeworld.org


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