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Learn online marketing from ISIS

These Islamists are hip to technology, and they use it very effectively
Islamic State authorities enforcing Sharia law with local shopkeepers in Raqqa, Syria. (photo credit: YouTube screen capture/Vice News)
Islamic State authorities enforcing Sharia law with local shopkeepers in Raqqa, Syria. (photo credit: YouTube screen capture/Vice News)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recently released a gruesome and bloody 50 minute feature film called ‘The Flames of War’ that could only be challenged in terms of its graphic and sickening images and high production value by Quentin Tarantino himself. Within a few hours of the video being live on YouTube, it had been taken down. However the video can still be found online here.

While ISIS is a deplorable terrorist organization that commits murder and genocide in some of the most gruesome ways possible, this video shows that, to its leaders, its image is important. Some call it a propaganda video but to those versed in the art of online reputation management, you will be able to see it is an attempt to both instill fear in the hearts of ISIS’s enemies while also proclaiming their world views to a wider audience.

ISIS has invested greatly in the production value and quality of this film so it can have maximum impact and reach its desired audiences. The film has a beautiful and eloquently voice over done by a native English speaker complete with authentic American accent. For those of you who don’t have the stomach to watch the film (and I don’t blame you) I can attest that the visual effects are stunning and very professionally done. Everything from slow motion captures of rocket-propelled grenade attacks to slow motion smiling ISIS fighters celebrating after a hard fought battle. Add to this the appropriate background music and you get the feeling of their fighters’ supremacy, control and invincibility.

Within the film, the narrator discusses the “media war” that was launched against ISIS using “preconceived lies” created by “agents of America, Assad and Iran.” This shows that ISIS is fully aware of the media’s influence on their reputation and the way both Westerners perceive them and also potential recruits can be disenfranchised by such negative media coverage. This was one of the triggers that caused ISIS to join the media war to improve their reputation and give their side of the story.

Another sign that branding and reputation have become important to ISIS is that British journalist and captive of ISIS, John Cantile, (a reporter) has been posting a string of videos (while still being held captive and threatened with death) in support of ISIS. The goal of his propaganda is to help ISIS from being “misunderstood”. Note that this is the second time Cantile has been captured. He was held in 2012 and escaped. Cantile has appeared in a recent ISIS propaganda video (which he created while still under capture) saying he is to host a series of forthcoming clips in which he will explain the group’s motives and challenge the West’s fight against it.

So what can we learn in terms of online marketing and reputation management from ISIS’s massive investment of resources in this film? Unfortunately a lot. ISIS have implemented numerous online marketing principles correctly and harnessed them for their maximum effect. If we look over the things ISIS have done, surprisingly, you could actually learn a thing or two about how to promote your own business or organization.

Target Audience

Before starting any type of marketing communication activities it is always important to clearly define the target audience. In a complex myriad of scenes and messages within the film, it is clear that there are a few target audiences intended.

  • Firstly and foremost, ISIS wants to communicate to you, an average westerner and civilian about their world view: why they are fighting to set up a Caliphate and instigate Sharia law worldwide. Their message is clear, yet the way they present it in the film, very sincerely trying to make the world a holy and better place, is ludicrous to anyone who disagrees with their beliefs.
  • The second audience is their enemies, that being any state that is either currently engaged in military actions against them or considering joining. These are clearly messages to instill fear in the enemy and make sure they know the costs and consequences of engaging in a war against ISIS. The video also focuses on the type of professional and efficient fighting force any ‘enemy soldier’ will come up against. This audience is more for decision makers, world leaders and soldiers of western armies.
  • The third audience is potential recruits. Throughout the film, the shahid warrior is idolized and the heroic nature of the pure Islamic fighters is presented to the viewer. Also, there is clearly some ‘war porn’ for those who are attracted to battles and find it enticing to watch and even want to be part of the bloody fighting campaign of ISIS’s ‘holy’ cause.

Before setting out on any marketing campaign for your business, you will have to clearly define your target audience. This will, in turn, affect the mediums of communications you use, the style of communication and the messages within that communication. It is also very complex and rarely effective to have multiple target audiences in one communication. Unless you are Coca Cola and have a mass market audience, then it is best to break down each message and campaign to target your desired audience to ensure the messages gets through and has the greatest impact possible.


The film heavily focuses on the messages of ISIS and brands it as a strong organization fighting for ‘holy’ reasons to spread the law of Islam (Sharia law) for the good of the world. This innocent and even naive branding shows how disconnected from reality the leaders and members of ISIS are. Yet the way they present themselves in such a righteous light is a running theme throughout the film. The black color of their uniforms and consistent black flag allows their brand to have a color theme associated which is also important for branding.

Your business or organization will also need a brand presence which should instantly give current and potential customers a feel of what your business stands for. This can help you differentiate yourself from your competitors and show your unique selling points. With a brand comes a feeling which to some businesses even list as an asset on their balance sheets as it is seen to have real value (Porsche, for example).

Organization Name

This is actually where ISIS is failing but even so there is a lot to be learnt. At the start of the movement’s life it was called the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) which is still how Obama refers to the organization such as in his famous speech the other week when he stated that the US will start airstrikes. Now this initial name was limiting since the whole goal of the organization was to conquer the world and spread Sharia law and not just focus on Iraq (even though few know ‘the Levant’ refers to many countries around Iraq in the Middle East). Due to the word Iraq being so prominent even though they aim to take over many other countries, they picked a first name that limits their organizations ability to show they are a global player and operate in many countries. So when they did successfully conquer parts of Syria they needed a name change: “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). That name stuck hence I am using it in this post. Yet it has the same issues as the original name and, as a result, is flawed and needed to be changed. The organization has now settled on the name “Islamic State” (IS). However, the international media has been slow to migrate to this newest name. In the end, the organization’s name in Arabic (and what it is called in Hebrew) being “Da-ish” is the least recognized in the western media but most accurate.

For your business, it is not recommended to either set a name that limits your business development in the future nor should you be changing your business name very often. This causes confusion in the marketplace and decreases brand awareness.

Social Media

ISIS is quite weak at using their social media in English to communicate anything more than details of battle victories (sometimes inaccurate), post a video or spread their ideology through Islam related posts and tweets. It is highly possible that ISIS is more professional and more engaging through their social media channels in Arabic.

When deciding on if to start using social media to build a community around your brand and business, ensure it is done well otherwise don’t bother. Social media should take on a more informal tone and each platform should add a different type of value to the follower. I strongly suggest against posting the exact same thing in the same way on both Twitter and Facebook, for example. Your social media accounts should be updated regularly with new and relevant posts that position you and your business as thought leaders in the industry while also informing and entertaining your audience.

Viral Video

ISIS’s main aim in investing so much time filming and so much money beautifully producing this video was for it to reach as wider audience as possible by going viral. The term ‘going viral’ is when a film is shared by a large number of people via social media so it has a multiplier effect and keeps reaching more and more people. Due to the video being taken off YouTube within hours of it being posted and it being hard to locate on the internet, this effect has been somewhat mitigated by American authorities and YouTube’s Terms of Use. Even so, it has been widely reported on and is accessible to anyone searching for it hence the link to it was included at the start of this post.

Whenever anyone asks me my opinion if they should invest part of their marketing budget in creating a viral video, I always have the same answer – it depends. It depends on a number of factors such as how large your budget is so that not all (or even half) is invested in just this one medium of marketing. Then you have to take into account that around one out of every three viral videos created (or more) doesn’t go viral and as a result, doesn’t reach the intended size of audience and don’t give the return on investment forecasted.

If you do decide to go ahead and create a viral video, there are a few rules that can help you succeed.

  • Upload to a strong video platform. ‘The Flames of War’ was on YouTube before being pulled which is the world’s second largest search engine. Other video platforms are Dailymotion, Vimeo, Flickr, etc
  • Try to get as many other people creating videos commenting on your video in both the press and related YouTube amateur reporters. The ISIS video got a lot of commentary videos on it and free press coverage from all major outlets that reported on it and showed snippets causing it to further go viral
  • A good viral video should cause word of mouth which then influences other to search for it and view it. ISIS’s video definitely caused a lot of discussion hence I am sure there were a lot of people searching for it specifically.
  • Use of social media, e.g. Twitter, to spread video. ISIS did use their Twitter account (possibly other social media) to notify the public that they had posted the video on YouTube. This is what started the multiplier effect (aka snowball effect) for the video to go viral
  • The video should have visually sexy / provocative / motivational / humorous images and a theme to help it go viral. ISIS definitely had those ‘sexy’ images of bloody war scenes and lots of ‘gun porn’ for those interested in weaponry
  • Seeding is the way in which a video is distributed by key influencers on their social media accounts to their masses of followers which helps to spread views of the video. Influencers can be bloggers, journalists, celebrities, politicians, industry leaders, etc. In business, many also use paid ads on certain platforms like YouTube to help promote their video initially until it gains a critical mass of people sharing on their personal social media accounts.

A famous and recent example of a viral video that subtly helped brand a product was Coke’s clever viral video of the ‘Social Media Guard’ quite ironically promoted by the very platform it was mocking.

A creative Israeli start up who specialize in viral videos (amongst other things), called Tross has successfully helped many businesses create viral videos and have great examples of viral videos on the portfolio page of their website.


While ISIS is a truly evil entity and a worldwide threat due to thier ideology, there seems to be a shift in the way they want to be viewed by the West which caused this video to be created and released. ISIS is also doing other work trying to change their organization’s name in a further attempt to rebrand.  Lastly ISIS is creating other videos and attempting to give the organization legitimacy such as Cantile’s most recent videos. Due to this mind set and focus shift by ISIS, we have the opportunity to learn a lot from their successful and less successful online marketing activities and see how they can be applied to your business.

In contrast to ISIS, your business should not have any unethical or illegal acts you wish to cover up, so the marketing activities should be focused on promotion and communication rather than subversion, lies and trickery as ISIS is performing. Make no mistake, no matter what kind of resources ISIS pours into improving their image and whatever online marketing activities they do, they are still and always will be a repugnant and murderous terrorist organization and no amount of marketing can cover up that truth.

Additional Information

For those interested in a little more information about the film’s content and yet don’t want to suffer through the sickening images and 50 minutes of it, here is a brief summary of the main points within:

  • Clear message: ‘the fighting has just begun’
  • Death is glorified as ISIS states about itself in the film “Selling the life of their warriors (Mujahedeen) in this world for the after world”
  • Shows professional battle strategies and how victories in a range of specific battles were militarily achieved
  • Focus on ‘victory’ for ISIS on the battlefield and also the victory when the ISIS fighters are killed
  • Clear statements that the Americans will have a “direct war” and be “dragged into direct conflict not through proxy with ISIS” which is an attempt to scare off any military ground intervention
  • Glorification of the ISIS fighters and disgust of the “filthy” enemy which is reminiscent of the way the Nazi’s saw themselves as a super race and others as inferior and hence disposable
About the Author
Paul is a Zionist, digital marketer, husband to an amazing wife, father to two adorable kids and news junkie. On the interesting, challenging and sometime painful journey of life, Paul tries to see the good in all and the hand guiding everything behind the scenes. As part of Paul's work in strengthening Israel, he also consults to a variety of Israeli tech start-ups to help them create profitable business models and work on their digital marketing to find new clients using a variety of online channels.
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