4 Things We Learned from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Social Media Marketing


Many years from now, as anthropologists comb through the remnants of our civilization, they’ll find something strange in the YouTube archives:  thousands of people willingly dumping ice water over their heads.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is the latest in a long list of unexpectedly viral phenomena. This list includes, but is not limited to, Grumpy Cat, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, and Gangnam Style (none of which impressed Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, nor did the Honey Badger give a you-know-what about).

But even after following such an impressive list, the Ice Bucket Challenge stands out. For those who have been living under a rock all summer, one can participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge by filming yourself dumping a bucket of water over your head, posting the video, and challenging another person to do the same – all to raise awareness for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In the last eight weeks alone, The ALS Association has raised over $79 million! Not only did their donations skyrocket, but they have generated immeasurable awareness about their cause.

So what are the dynamics at work that propelled the Ice Bucket Challenge into the viral phenomenon that it is today? And how you can leverage these in your next marketing campaign? Read on to find out.

Personalize Participation

Not everyone will want to participate in your campaigns in the same way. The Ice Bucket Challenge acknowledged this by giving participants two ways to participate: you could either dump ice water on your head or you could straight donate to the cause.

To apply this principal to your marketing, give your audience more than one way to consume and share your content. Some people prefer a whitepaper to an ebook, people would rather repost your latest infographic on Facebook than email a link to a friend. This applies to channels as well – some will want to engage with you on social, others through email, and others on your website. In the same way that the ALS Association makes it easy to participate in the challenge, make it easy to engage with your brand.

Employ the (Positive) Power of Peer Pressure

The “challenge a friend” component is another reason the Ice Bucket Challenge continues to be so successful. Most participants post their videos to Facebook, where they can leverage Facebook’s tagging feature in order to challenge the next person. Spreading the challenge becomes part of participation, which guarantees its longevity. The tagging component also creates accountability – because the challenge is posted to the tagged person’s wall.

In your marketing, find ways to build a sharing component directly into your campaigns – whether it’s through a referral program, social sharing buttons, or content co-written by members of your audience (like our Real Marketer Stories ebook, or our Haiku Contest). You can also take a hint from the Ice Bucket Challenge by involving entire communities – are there user groups, meet-ups, or other communities that your audience participates in?

Everyone Loves a Star

Celebrity endorsement is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it has worked like a charm for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Everyone from Matt Lauer to Cristiano Ronaldo have taken part in the challenge, and half the fun is seeing which celebs will be tagged next.

Celebrity involvement can draw major media coverage, which in turn helps you spread your message. In marketing, we often look to big names to attract big audiences for events. But don’t despair, you don’t need George Clooney to make your campaign or event successful. In fact, a huge celebrity name might not make sense for your industry, or might attract the wrong kind of attention. Consider thought leaders/speakers who hold special significance to your audience, and check out our infographic on influencer marketing for more tips.

Make it Fun

Lastly, it’s important to make your marketing campaigns fun! The ALS Association wisely chose to hold the Ice Bucket Challenge during the hottest part of the year, when people are already looking for a way to cool off. Also, when you’re working inside on a beautiful summer day, there’s nothing like a video of your friend dumping ice water over his head.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is still going strong, but we’ve already learned a lot from its success. Why do you think the challenge has gone so viral, and what takeaways will you apply to your own marketing strategy?