10 Lessons Marketers Can Learn From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge


ice bucket challenge marketing lessons

If you haven’t been digitally detoxing, you have probably seen your friends (and some celebrities) dumping ice over their heads, challenging others to do the same, and in some cases donating money to ALS.

It seems everyone has a point of view on the challenge itself, but whether or not you’re a fan, it’s hard to deny the massive reach – and financial impact.Whereas last year the ALS team raised $2.6MM, this year donations to ALSA have topped $88MM (over the same time period, July 29 to August 26) and are still pouring in.

For many marketers, it’s a dream case study in the making: An increase in donations by over 800%, organic celebrity involvement, a rise in conversation, and endless amounts of content that can be shared on brand channels.

So what can you learn from the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge?

1. Keep the barrier to participate low.

Almost anyone can procure ice and water. There’s no entry mechanism, no specific form to fill out, no file format to remember, no site where you have to upload your video. All you have to do is use your smartphone to film yourself and tag/invite others using the social media platform of your choice.

2. Build in personal invitations.

In some ways, this is a classic case of peer pressure. The challenges issued to individuals aren’t sent via an email bot; Instead they’re said directly to camera, from a friend, to the public. It’s much harder to ignore an ask from someone who you know, especially when they’re only asking two other people. And because individuals are tagged, their social stream will also see the challenge, adding in a social shaming element for those who choose not to participate.

3. Use a strong – and specific – call to action. 

Inviting others helps build in social spread, but there’s genius in the wording as well. Issuing a challenge is more likely to inspire participation than merely suggesting others partake.

4. Urgency is motivating.

No one gets anything done without a deadline. By giving people 24 hours to participate, it deters people from putting it off and forgetting about it. Of course it’s hard to inspire urgency if you’re asking for something complex.

5. Content should be short, digestible and entertaining – but doesn’t have to be branded.

Most videos themselves are under 60 seconds, and let’s face it, it’s fun to watch people dump ice water on themselves. The videos aren’t about ALS, or the research that is ongoing, and most people are tagging their content with #IceBucketChallenge, a hashtag that doesn’t include a nod to the ALSA or the disease itself.

And still, it’s working: This Google Trends chart shows that as the Ice Bucket Challenge has increased in popularity, so have the number of searches for ALS. In fact, more people are searching for ALS than for the Ice Bucket Challenge itself!

ALS ice bucket challenge google trends

6. Celebrity endorsements can act as a tipping point.

It used to be that you needed to be picked up by mainstream media to make a grassroots campaign go viral. But these days celebrities (and other influencers) are media channels themselves with not only a strong reach, but arguably a more engaged audience than many traditional media vehicles.

7. Use the Benjamin Franklin Effect to your advantage.

It’s a psychological phenomenon showing that someone who has already done a favor for someone is more likely to do another favor for that person than if they had received a favor from that person.

Lost? Originally, the Ice Bucket Challenge went like this: Donate money OR dump ice water on your head. But many people, after dumping ice water on their head, are still donating.

The Benjamin Franklin effect says that by doing a single favor (like the pouring ice water on your head to build awareness for a cause), you’ve subconsciously told yourself that whoever you were doing the favor for is worthy. And after you’ve done the first favor, you’re more likely to support them again (maybe by donating money, for example.)

8. Money isn’t front and center. 

Perhaps the donations are in some ways the most surprising success metric: After all, most videos challenging others don’t link to the organization or even name the ALSA.

Money is clearly a part of the challenge, and donations have indeed skyrocketed, but no one is begging you to donate. (Take note, politicians!) And while many people who participate in the challenge are doing both, there’s an opportunity to participate for those who don’t have the disposable income to donate, without associated guilt.

9. Originality is a myth.

At Genius Steals, we believe originality is a myth: that nothing comes from nothing. And the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a perfect example. The Ice Bucket Challenge originated as a way to spark charitable donations, but wasn’t tied to ALS specifically.

One participant named ALS as their charitable cause, and others decided to go with it instead of changing the charity. You don’t need a “never been done before” idea to spark interest and participation.

10. Join existing conversations instead of starting your own. 

It’s content marketing 101, and ALSA owned it. This “campaign” wasn’t started by an ALS organization. Instead, after seeing that participants were naming ALS in their videos, the ALSA jumped on board.

We’re sure to see a number of copycat campaigns this year (MacMillan Cancer Support has already launched their own Ice Bucket Challenge), but instead of hosting another Ice Bucket Challenge, why not pay attention to conversations from people who care about your cause? How can you join their conversations and build in cultural relevance to spark awareness and donations that rival the Ice Bucket Challenge?



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