Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has taken off - and how to replicate that success for your marketing/PR campaign

Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has taken off - and how to replicate that success for your marketing/PR campaign

The #IceBucketChallenge hashtag on Instagram has gone viral.

You knew it was inevitable -- one of your friends nominated you for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Now you’re preparing to dump a bucket of ice and freezing water over your head and post the video on Facebook.

But since you’re a communicator, you’re also thinking: How the HECK did this campaign go so viral?

The Ice Bucket Challenge was created by former Division 1 college athlete Pete Frates to raise awareness of ALS. Frates, 29, has lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2012. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord, often leaving its victims paralyzes while their mind is still alert. Life expectancy from time of diagnosis is two to five years.

Unlike many similar #MarketingFails that fall flat on their face, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has taken on a life of its own, with celebrities and the public alike participating. Donations have followed; contributions for the week ending on August 8th were five times what they were for the same week last year, said Stephanie Dufner, communications manager for the ALS Association.

Here are a few reasons pouring ice over your head has become trendy, so you can replicate that success for your own marketing campaign.

1. The campaign is audience-driven. After a while, spouting your own message gets old, at least to the people you’re trying to reach. Know what doesn’t get moldy? Members of your community spouting the message for you.

That’s exactly what’s happening with the ALS challenge: we’re hearing about it from our friends, which is far more powerful than any message that comes from a foundation or association. If you can get your community to tell their friends about your cause -- and even act on its behalf or donate -- you’ve hit the jackpot.  

GoPro, which sells wearable cameras, is an excellent example of this: they’ve mastered the art of community participation by encouraging users to share videos of themselves and their adventures online. Another solid example is Eone Timepieces, a startup that makes a watch you can touch to tell time, which encourages their community to share creative photos of the timepiece around the world.

2. The sharing component is built in. Not only does the ALS challenge rely on the community to spread the word, it also includes an organic growth feature that has helped it take off: all participants nominate several other people to take the challenge. They’re not just doing it themselves, they’re including their friends in the challenge.

Here’s another example of a campaign that used Facebook tagging in a genius way: furniture company Ikea allowed customers to tag themselves in showroom photos, and the first person to claim an item got to take it home. The benefit here wasn’t the customer tagging himself, it was that Ikea photo showing up in the customer’s Facebook feed, where all his friends could see. (Facebook has strict -- and constantly changing -- rules on contests, so check them out before you ask your community to go on a tagging spree.)

3. It’s authentic. “Authentic” has almost become trite in our social media vocabulary, but it’s still the best feature any campaign can have. The hard part is, authenticity is difficult to manufacture. The best-case scenario is a member of your community feels compelled to launch a campaign that takes off, like Frates did for ALS.

The ALS Association has not put any money behind the campaign, said communications manager Dufner; it’s truly grassroots. “People started taking the challenge and it just grew from there.” The campaign saw serious boosts when celebrities like Martha Stewart and Matt Lauer took the challenge, she said.

While this isn’t something you can will to happen, you can put the pieces in place that make it more likely. The key is to have a great cause your community wants to get around, and empower them -- make it easy for them -- to tell their friends.

4. The campaign feeds off a sense of urgency. Letting your community know that the cause is important may be enough to spread the word amongst your inner circle, but if you want to break out of that circle and into the mainstream, you’ve got to top off your message with a sense of urgency.

Frankes was smart to add a 24-hour deadline onto his campaign; supporters must take the ice bath or donate $100 to an ALS group within just a day of being nominated. That forces nominees to act almost as soon as they’re tagged, which means they won’t forget or procrastinate, so the campaign spreads more quickly.

Marketers who sell digital products use this same technique, offering sales for only a short time at launch, creating their own urgency, which encourages potential buyers to commit before other distractions get in the way. Usually though, the time limit is the same for everyone; for example, the opportunity to enter a contest ends at noon on Monday or the launch price for a product expires at the end of the week. The unique spin on the ALS challenge is the deadline is different for every participant. It varies depending on when you’re nominated, which instills that urgency no matter when you’re hit with the campaign.

5. The content ain’t perfect. While we talk incessantly about the importance of high quality, the truth is that amateur, authentic videos are often the most powerful. Sure, lots of professional videos become popular online, but the truth is, so do plenty of videos by people who barely know how to use their camera.

You don’t need a ton of expensive video equipment to create something worth sharing, and the ALS challenge is a perfect example. Have any of your friends who dumped ice over their head shared a steady-handed, perfectly dictated, professionally edited video? Didn’t think so. And the guy who started this movement didn’t, either.

This marketing rule-of-thumb applies especially for video, but it’s important for blog posts and ebooks and other creations, too: launch before you’re ready. If you wait until everything is perfect to release it to the world, you’re holding yourself back.

6. The campaign is covered in… luck. Even if you have an awesome cause, meaningful content and a community that’s willing to give your message a solid start out of the gate, you’ll still need luck to make it go viral.

In many ways, it’s up to us to make our own luck, and you can give your campaign that best shot at a viral life by including all the elements above. But hitting the jackpot will likely take more than a few tries. So you’d better get to work -- just as soon as you dump that bucket of ice over your head.

Alexis Grant is founder of Socialexis, a content marketing company, and author of ebook How to Create a Freakin’ Fabulous Social Media Strategy.

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