Why The Ice Bucket Challenge Chills The Hearts Of Viral Marketers

It’s been the viral campaign of the summer — perhaps even of the decade. Between the beginning of June and the middle of August more than 1.2 million videos had been shared on Facebook showing members pouring buckets of iced water over their heads and challenging their friends to do the same. On Twitter, the meme has picked up more than 2.2 million mentions, all in the name of charity.

The Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t started by an agency and it didn’t come from The ALS Association, the medical research charity that has benefitted most from the attention. It started several months ago when Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player and sufferer of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, began posting the challenge on social media with the help of his father.

The campaign has since spread broadly. Celebrities have dunked themselves on chat shows, politicians have uploaded pictures of themselves being iced and even Barack Obama has received a challenge which he refused, taking the option to donate $100 to research instead. In dollar terms, the campaign has been a huge success too. On August 21st alone, the organization raised $10 million taking its haul since the end of July to $53 million. That’s just $11 million less than the total amount raised in 2013. A few days later, donations had topped $88.5 million from nearly 2 million donors.

Few viral campaigns have spread so quickly — or produced such large amounts of positive, measurable data.

Ronald McDonald Iced

It’s no surprise then that social media brand managers have been keen to join the fun. Chilis Grill and Bar produced a creative Vine showing iced water poured over a chili pepper. Samsung had its hardy Galaxy S5 smartphone challenge the more fragile iPhone to a dunking, and Ronald McDonald missed the point by challenging all redheads and forgetting to mention donations. Other sellers have cashed in with t-shirts and products.

A number of experts though have pointed out the campaign’s weaknesses. Writing in Digiday, Adam Kleinberg has noted the lack of clarity of “ALS” as a brand.

[W]hen I first got a video in my inbox, I said to myself, “What the hell is ALS?” I guessed at American Lymphoma Society. It wasn’t until I heard a story on NPR that I figured out it was Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The campaign might have raised buckets of cash this year and awareness of the disease has probably risen too, a vague goal often cited in charity memes and which is difficult to measure. But there’s no sign that understanding of the disease, its causes and symptoms have spread among those picking ice out of their hair or challenging their friends to cool off quickly on a summer day. Responses to criticisms of “clicktivism,” a form of activism that demands minimal action, usually point to the dollar amounts raised rather to any long-lasting change in the treatment of the disease or the hopes for a cure.

Kleinberg also notes the gap between the challenge itself and the cause it supports. Lou Gehrig’s disease is a motor neuron affliction that causes muscle atrophy and usually leads to death from respiratory failure within 39 months. Pete Frates wrote on his Facebook page that “ice water and ALS are a bad mix” and instead of dousing himself in frozen water in the clip that started the campaign, he filmed himself bouncing his head to “Ice Ice Baby” before nominating his friends. (He has since agreed to be soaked at Fenway Park.)

Participants might remember the summer when they were soaked in ice, but they won’t necessarily recall the disease they did it for or its early symptoms.

Giving Facebook The Cold Shoulder

No less importantly, the campaign has also been annoying. Jeremiah Owyang, founder of CrowdCompanies.com, has characterized the campaign as:

The 3 ALS #IceBucketChallenge options: 1) Do it and be questioned 2) Don’t do it and be questioned. 3) pretend you don’t use internet

If there was ever a good time to steer clear of Facebook, this summer has been it.

For brands looking to learn from the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, that makes the campaign a challenge in itself. Digiday has dismissed the possibility that marketers could have achieved a similar level of success had a big brand been behind it. It started organically and spread from one individual and his family rather than being promoted deliberately, with a budget and with seeding among key influencers.

It was also emotional; fun (for both participants and their nominators); had a simple call to action; showed participants in a good light (as prepared to both support charity and make a small sacrifice for the cause); and it was universal. Anyone could take part and having taken part, there’s a pleasure in nominating someone else to take part.

It was also lucky.

Had the campaign started in the winter, the idea of dumping ice was unlikely to have been so successful. Had it required participants to run a marathon, it wouldn’t have spread so far.

There are lessons there for brands. If you want your campaign to have any chance of going viral, it needs to be something that anyone can do, that’s difficult but not too difficult, and most importantly, fun to see people you know doing.

Few actions fit all of those categories, especially when they’re backed by a brand. People might be willing to feel a chill if they think it will help someone with a terrible disease; they’ll be less willing to suffer if they think it will help a shareholder with a dividend. Brands might be able to cash in on similar campaigns if they can think of the right actions — standing on one leg perhaps, or picking candy out of a bowl of flour without using their hands — but they’ll need to team up with a charity to make them work.

Whenever a viral meme conquers the Internet, marketers will always try to dissect it, understand how it works and work those key elements into their own campaigns. In practice, though, the best memes, like this one, are almost impossible to replicate, tend to come out of nowhere and leave even the best marketers in the cold.

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