While many experts say the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is on the decline, you wouldn’t know it from the organization’s public narrative.
ISIS aggressively promotes the attacks it directs, supports or inspires. The extremist group recently took credit for attacks in Orlando and Brussels, reinforcing its image of being an unstoppable and legitimate network. And it has built that image through a troublingly savvy combination of traditional and new media.
The ISIS propaganda strategy compels people to action: ISIS has persuaded an estimated 30,000 people from more than 85 countries to travel to hostile war zones in Iraq and Syria and inspired other supporters to commit acts of violence on ISIS’ behalf in their home countries. And ISIS propaganda does not only focus on its military activity: ISIS also tries to portray itself as an effective government, but that effort rarely gets the same level of attention in the mainstream U.S. press as its military activity.
The caliphate’s narrative helped fuel expansion beyond Iraq and Syria to regions such as Libya, Yemen, and even Afghanistan, where its competitor al-Qaida has been operating and messaging for years. Instead of selling a physical product, ISIS executes a robust and technically savvy propaganda strategy to sell the image of the caliphate. ISIS’ propaganda engine yields four key marketing insights that highlight why the group’s messaging is so resilient.
(Note: We considered embedding some specific examples of ISIS propaganda but decided against it because we do not wish to boost the legitimacy and exposure of the images.)
1. ISIS knows its target audience
It is crucial for any international corporation to master the ability to adapt marketing strategies and content for assorted foreign audiences and to make that content easily discoverable. ISIS is able to sustain a global reach while resonating locally by adopting a broadly consistent narrative of different themes to appeal to recruits.
In home-base countries like Iraq and Syria, ISIS propaganda often depicts ISIS’ governance successes to reinforce support from local populations. When fomenting hatred of Western governments, ISIS relies on highly sophisticated, multilingual content intended to outrage the public and get picked up by the mainstream press.
Foreign recruits in ISIS’ media department are critical to ensuring that the content targeting a specific region has the substance and timing to achieve maximum impact. These recruits provide basic translation services, monitor the reaction to ISIS’ propaganda, and use that feedback to tailor future content.
Once the content is tailored to the target audience, consumers need to be able to quickly and reliably obtain it across multiple channels and devices. Digital aggregators such as search engines and social media platforms allow anyone to filter content and pull ISIS propaganda. The group uses hashtags to spread campaigns on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, while those very companies try to identify and block terrorist content. ISIS has even gone so far as to develop its own digital aggregators, including language-specific websites, Telegram channels and mobile apps to further filter out noise and push content to an active audience.
2. ISIS saturates the market
Modern marketing departments recognize the importance of saturating their diverse target audience with content of varying formats and production value.
The scale and variety of ISIS’ propaganda system are immense. The system is composed of videos, photo essays, magazines, audio programs and news bulletins in more than a half-dozen languages. ISIS saturates the market with an average of 38 pieces of such content a day.
How can ISIS create that much daily content? By primarily relying on more than 35 provincial media offices to frequently publish visual content (even if relatively unsophisticated), ensuring that ISIS’ audience has constant access to a large volume of timely information. Complementing these efforts is a group of professional media developers capitalizing on the democratization of modern media development tools. These developers are creating highly sophisticated content, including feature-length movies containing meticulously rehearsed scenes with stylized special effects.
Both the format and complexity of ISIS’ content are markedly different from al-Qaida’s, which featured senior leadership using a static camera and referencing outdated events in formal Arabic. ISIS’ highly produced content is fresh and more enticing to Sunni millennials, the primary demographic for recruitment.
ISIS’ emphasis on production values assists in attracting the attention of mainstream media, ensuring that its narrative is broadcast to a global audience, and it seeks to portray an image (whether true or not) of an effective and well-run government.
3. ISIS adapts to modern media
As technology advances, the means by which people receive information also evolves. In order to maintain a connection with the target audience, publishers must adjust their primary distribution methods between print, broadcast and, now, new media.
Militant propagandists followed the same transformation. For example, al-Qaida initially relied on TV networks like Al Jazeera to distribute its messages and later embraced the Web by relying on password-protected Arabic-language Web forums to distribute propaganda.
But ISIS moved beyond al-Qaida’s private online network. Recognizing the desire of its audience to leverage mobile platforms for media consumption and engagement, ISIS developed a decentralized and diverse network of free file-upload sites, social media platforms and messaging apps to ensure continuous and cost-efficient access to a global audience. Offline, inside ISIS-controlled territory, ISIS still relies on traditional media like print publications and broadcast radio to target local audiences while also removing competing alternatives. This diverse set of distribution channels enables ISIS to reach an equally diverse set of target audiences, including opponents, the international community and potential recruits.
4. ISIS grooms brand ambassadors
Word of mouth is the most effective messaging in all of marketing, perceived by consumers to be more trusted than marketing messages straight from a corporation. Just this month, new measures in the U.K. propose separating extremist prison inmates from other inmates to prevent them from radicalizing others.
ISIS primarily relies on a combination of hashtags and a relatively small group of Twitter accounts that tweet its content more than 150 times a day. This results in a decentralized and redundant distribution network largely protected from censorship, despite these accounts being frequent targets for suspension by Twitter.
Of course, the key to growing a brand footprint is getting people to share content. Once ISIS’ content is made available to the public, digital supporters share it with zeal. They provide encouragement and direction; they counter anti-ISIS messaging; and they repackage, retranslate and redistribute their own unofficial content.
Personalization of content is also crucial in supporting the radicalization and mobilization process. Since ISIS doesn’t typically own the platforms where its propaganda is hosted, it isn’t able to develop the detailed user profiles most companies rely on for targeted advertisement. Instead, ISIS supporters and recruiters match propaganda with the motivations and interests of each potential recruit they target.
Capitalizing on the excitement and momentum that conversations and user-generated content generate, ISIS encourages the activity further through propagandist press releases that frame online support as a legitimate form of jihad, on par with physical fighting.
The continuous discourse generated by the group of unofficial supporters not only sustains and reinforces ISIS’ narrative but also strengthens its brand credibility, expanding its base of loyal support. The trend also further radicalizes ISIS’ existing and future supporters — making them more potentially dangerous.
Wil Selby is an emerging technology and national security researcher in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @wilselby or visit wilselby.com.