Social Enterprise

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Why it worked and what social media marketers can learn

There's no magic formula for virality, but here's a look at social media's latest phenomenon.

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It might be a while before the internet dries off.

The past few weeks on social media have been an inescapable stream of short videos of both the famous and not so famous dumping buckets of ice water on themselves in the name of ALS research. So far the lineup includes former President George W. Bush, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Lady Gaga, Nick Offerman — even the Biebs. The internet's going to run out of celebrities pretty soon.

As of Sunday morning, the ALS Association reported $70.2 million in donations compared to $2.5 million during the same time period last year. The Ice Bucket Challenge has not only been an internet sensation, but more importantly a fund-raising success.

So what does it take for the Internet to pay attention? Unfortunately, marketers can't always answer that question definitely. After all, ALSA didn't even initiate the challenge. CBS News reported golfers have done similar challenges to support "pet charities" in the past. Pro golfer Chris Kennedy challenged his cousin Jeanette Senerchia. Senerchia's husband has ALS. She took the challenge, tied it to ALS, nominated some friends, and before long, William Shatner was drenched and howling in his bathroom.

In the wake of a campaign like this, no doubt, other similar campaigns will crop up — do this thing for that reason and post a video — and that will inevitably weaken the potency. Rather than try and replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge, perhaps look at the parts of it that can be applied to a future original video campaign.

The first takeaway is the importance of creating a compelling message, said Gartner analyst Jennifer Polk. It's unlikely a brand would be able to pull off a campaign quite like this one — breakfast cereal doesn't carry the same importance as fighting a disease does, obviously — but the broader idea is that a video campaign should elicit some type of reaction. "It shouldn't just inspire a sense of neutrality," Polk said.

Part of what makes a message compelling is emotional resonance. Typically, the two strongest emotions are humor and anger. Marketers are usually reluctant to play on anger, Polk said, although campaigns against the tobacco industry, for example, have managed to harness the emotion appropriately. That leaves humor.

"They've taken a disease which is not at all funny, and they've taken a cause that is not at all funny, but they've attached it to social behavior that's hilarious," Polk said.

On the topic of social behavior, each Ice Bucket Challenge includes a call to action as the person in the video nominates three more people, and gives them 24 hours to accept.

"It's the added factor of peer pressure and time sensitivity that I believe has made this go viral," said Amber Osborne, CMO of Seattle-based social media management tool Meshfire, "If your friend challenges you to do the ice bucket challenge and you don't do it, you feel guilty, and with only 24 hours to accept you just go 'Screw it, let's do it!'"

Emily Harris, content marketing manager at digital marketing firm Rockhouse Partners, said the challenge and the competition are essential. "Whenever you can ignite that competitive spirit in people, you're going to see good results," she said.

And in that short 24-hour timeframe, the simplicity of executing of the task is vital.

"That's the one thing about this challenge that belies all reason," Polk said. "Typically, as a rule of thumb, the more you ask people to do, the fewer people will do it." Also, be sure there's little risk to participants.

As Harris said, there's a fairly clear template — explain who challenged you, dunk, challenge three more people — so people can be more creative if they want, but don't necessarily have to be.

In this case, getting soaking wet doesn't seem too much of a barrier, and perhaps it's the celebrity participation that's mitigated any hesitation — the cool kids are doing, after all. Polk also talked about 90-8-2 rule. On social, perhaps 90% of people are just looking at the content. Another 8% are sharing or liking it, and the remaining 2% are creating that content.

"You think about the fact that that probably only represents about 2% of the broader audience that's talking about this, that's huge," she said.

Another element that makes the task relatively simple to complete is the use of mobile phones. As more and more people have the ability to record and edit with their phones, and then upload the video within a few seconds, that helps turn the call to join into something that sounds and is feasible for potential participants.

Where the videos get uploaded is also important- pick a platform that makes sense. Vine, Instagram, and Facebook are well fairly well suited for short videos that are meant to be tagged (with hashtags and the names of friends) and then shared.

With regard to Facebook, Polk said one glitch for the ALSA might be that so many Facebook conversations are private. From a social listening perspective, the organization may not get a complete picture of the social conversation surrounding the campaign — something else to think about when setting up a campaign.

In terms of set up though, there is a limit on how much control a brand will have when relying on word of mouth.

"Anytime you have a word of mouth marketing campaign where you're turning over control of the brand message to individuals, you run the risk of losing control of the message," Polk said, "But it might be a worthwhile trade off." The average person isn't media trained and might not be quite as on message as is ideal. One example of this is the confusion as to whether the participants douse themselves or donate, or douse themselves and donate, as seems to be the trend.

In any case, Polk said the Ice Bucket Challenge has been a solid case study in the power of earned media. Some are debating the breadth or depth of awareness has been raised, but the attention will lay groundwork for fundraising in the future, even it's merely working off the newly collected contact info from people (1.3 million of them) donating to the organization for the first time, she said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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