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Ice Bucket Challenge: Recipe for viral success

authored by Amy Paxson

If there has ever been the perfect example of the all-too-illusive “going viral”, it has to be the recent ice bucket challenge.  On the outside chance you have been living in a cave without access to TV, print or social media, the ice bucket challenge dares people to film themselves dumping a bucket of ice over their heads or donate $100 to the ALS Association.  That person nominates a few friends, who then have 24 hours to do the same.  The videos are posted to Facebook or other social media sites.

The challenge was apparently started by Chris Kennedy, a golfer in Florida, who was challenged to dump a bucket of ice over his head to support a charity of his choice.  The challenge was not specifically tied to ALS.  Kennedy chose ALS because a relative suffered from the disease and posted a video. 

With his father’s help, Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player who has ALS, started posting about it to raise awareness.  And then it spread like wildfire.  Within two weeks, pretty much everyone in Massachusetts had dumped ice on their heads and challenged their friends.  By the following week, the challenge has spread across the country.  Everyone from Ethel Kennedy to Weird Al Yankovic to Bill Gates has participated.  There are over a million ice bucket videos on Facebook, and no sign of it slowing down.

In the first few weeks, skeptics complained that dumping ice was the equivalent of “liking” something on Facebook – raising awareness but not necessarily cash.  But many people both dumped and donated. In fact, in 4 weeks (July 29 through August 19), the ice bucket challenge raised $23 million for the ALS Foundation, compared to under $2 million for the same period last year.  And the donations came from over 450,000 people who had never donated to ALS before.

So what was the magic that made this campaign the perfect viral marketing study when so many other social media efforts failed?  The ice bucket challenge had the perfect combination of social elements:

  • It is simple
  • It is broadcast-able
  • It’s fun (dumping a bucket of ice would be way less fun if it wasn’t summer)
  • It lets people feel good about doing something charitable
  • It involves torturing your friends

In short, it makes you feel good, but isn’t too hard to accomplish.  But most importantly, it was organic. It wasn’t reverse engineered by some marketing or PR firm.  This makes it very hard to replicate.  So if your client asks you to come up with “the next ice bucket challenge,” you might want to think twice.