Images don’t spread because they’re shocking. They spread when they overcome the coordination problem.
You can summarize the coordination problem as follows. If everyone does something, everyone wins (by win, we mean they receive more than they give). But if only one person takes action, that person loses. Thus everyone needs to know everyone else is taking action before they take action.
I spent a year working for UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency). We tested hundreds of images. We discovered people don’t react to disturbing images, they avoid them. Worse still, they avoid the source of them. They want to avoid the feeling that they should be doing something, but really don’t want to.
This is the coordination problem. It takes a lot of effort for one person to help refugees. It doesn’t have a huge impact. Yet if everyone knows everyone else is helping, everyone wants to help. They can profoundly help the refugees and make a big difference.
Alan Kurdi’s picture spread not because it was disturbing (there are no shortage of incredible pictures of refugees available), it spread because it ‘flashedover’ at incredible speed. The photo was taken on the morning of the 2nd. By late that evening hundreds of media outlets were showing the image.
Suddenly everyone knew that everyone cared – which made them care more. Hence the welcome crowds in Germany. The image benefited from a fortunate (for the refugees) confluence of events you might feel are hard to replicate.
But modern social leaders are going to need to respect their audience’s apathy and understand what motivates people. Images are more powerful than words. And the best use of words is to create images (aside, stop using images to display words).
An image alone, no matter how poignant, won’t take off unless it’s exposed to and shared by a lot of people within a very short space of time.
This is means you need to seed the image among plenty of people and have them expose it/talk about it within a short window. Book authors like Tim Ferriss do this well. He sends out a thousand review copies and asks the reviewer to publish their review all on a single day.
You can use the same process in your own communications. Don’t ask your audience/community to do something one morning. Line up over a dozen people who have already agreed to take action on that specific day. Seed the action before you announce action (and if you can’t seed it, you probably shouldn’t do it).
Once you overcome the coordination problem, momentum will give the object flight.