NewsThe Spin Cycle

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Best Cause Marketing Sensation in Social Media Era

By August 29, 2014 No Comments

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has thrown water on all the competition when it comes to cause marketing success in the social media era. Nothing has whipped up such a viral tsunami as this innovative, inspiring and impactful initiative. All branding gurus can learn much from this sensation that is taking the world by storm.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge demonstrates the power of social media to influence cause marketing on a global scale. The challenge was a perfect storm of social media, celebrity and grass-roots philanthropy, producing hurricane-strength viral social engagement during the dog days of summer. Unlike a hurricane, the challenge showed how social media can be harnessed, directed and managed for a social good.


By any account, the ice-bucket challenge’s success is staggering. As of this writing, The ALS Association had received $53.3 million in donations, up from a mere $2.2 million during the same period last year, and the association attracted more than 630,000 new donors during this period. Celebrities – from George Bush to Ben Affleck – have taken part in it, the media has written hundreds of stories on the topic, and pretty much everyone on the planet has seen at least one – if not dozens – of icy videos on their social media feeds. Those, no doubt, are statistics any charity would envy.


And it’s easy to see why the ice-bucket challenge has been so successful. It both supports a worthy cause – as many as 30,000 Americans at any given time are suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a sometimes deadly disease that leaves many sufferers paralyzed – and entertains people (admit it, it’s hard not to click on videos of people dousing themselves in ice water). Plus, the campaign itself is easy – if chilly – to participate in, and when people participate, they create shareable content that’s fun, or at least funny, for other people to watch and engage in themselves.


According to Facebook, between June 1 and late August, more than 28 million people have joined the conversation about the Ice Bucket Challenge including posting, commenting or liking a challenge post, and 2.4 million videos related to the ice bucket challenge have been shared on the social network.


Even if we don’t see another social storm like this again, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge holds many important lessons for marketers trying to tap into the secrets of the ALS campaign sensation. Here are the top takeaways from The Spin Cycle’s most trusted sources:


  1. Time It Right – the challenge was launched in June and peaked in August. Its timing was perfect and it was a feel-good counterpoint to the images of violence in the Middle East and in Ferguson, Missouri that have dominated the daily news cycle. Summer is a popular time for vacations and many are able to enjoy a more relaxed work schedule. School was out and extended hours of sunlight allowed people to participate in the challenge and video their super soaking after work. Plus, the nature of the challenge matched the timing; an ice bucket challenge would not have been as well received in winter. Anyone want pneumonia?


  1. Make It Personal – the idea of pouring ice-cold water on your head to raise awareness for a charity didn’t start out as an ALS dedicated awareness campaign. Yet, former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who has ALS, made it personal, leveraging his social network and a dedicated team of friends and family to spread the word.


  1. Mix In A Few Celebrities – the promotion became viral after a few local celebrities and sport figures took up the challenge. Their huge following allowed the challenge to explode out of Boston and expand nationally, organically, attracting an eclectic mix of A-list celebrities and famous faces who have risen to the challenge. And having a guy named Gates involved doesn’t hurt, either.


  1. KISS — Keep It Simple Stupid, or KISS, is the well-worn design principle stating that simple designs often perform better than complex ideas. In the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the rules are simple. Accept the challenge and get drenched in ice water or donate to ALS. The challenger picks who gets challenged next. The three and four word hashtags (#IceBucketChallenge #ALSIceBucketChallenge) made it easy to remember and share.


  1. Consider Street Credibility – It was the “bet you won’t do that” schoolyard tease that added a playful touch of social stigma and self-consciousness to the cause marketing campaign. Who could possibly turn it down? Now that the challenge has gained national exposure, it’s a point of pride and social standing to be challenged, adding to its widespread appeal.


  1. Focus on the Goal – although there has been some criticism about the tendency for a viral cause marketing campaign like this to encourage self-promotion and “slacktivism,” the charity is the ultimate beneficiary. The ALS Association has attracted hundreds of thousands of new and potential donors, and has received more than $53 million. With global awareness and a sizable war chest fueled by a flood of new donations, the association is able to move one step closer to a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease.


  1. Reputation Matters – if your business or charity is planning the next viral marketing campaign, your brand’s reputation will be the key to a successful campaign. The management team needs to be able to handle days or weeks of intense local and national media exposure. Businesses can protect their brand and take advantage of the spotlight with a proactive public relations strategy and a well-defined communications plan that precedes launching any marketing campaign.


Even if you are not able to replicate the next ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, “a shared commitment to charity and community, extending from the board room to the mailroom, can have a powerful positive impact on company reputation inside and outside the company,” explains Todd William, founder and CEO of Reputation Rhino, an online reputation management and marketing consultancy in New York.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge shows that everyone in our digital society can make a huge difference in the world through a clever, pithy and creative idea. Granted this was an epic epiphany, but under the right conditions, the perfect social media storm can be duplicated. There are many strategic lessons for branding, PR, marketing and ad professionals looking to create the next social media sensation.

Golden Mic | Peter Frates, Ice Bucket Challenge Creator


Peter Frates, the former Boston College baseball star who was diagnosed with the degenerative disease ALS in 2012, reveres Lou Gehrig. But with his Ice Bucket Challenge — the fund-raising stunt that has gone viral on social media sites the world over — Frates is helping replace memories of Gehrig’s classic doomed-hero speech with a more hopeful message about ALS: raise money and awareness and, with a little ingenuity, perhaps society can conquer this most hopeless of diseases.

The Ice Bucket Challenge strikes a different note: people film themselves dumping a bucket of ice water on their heads, and nominate others to do the same. If they comply within 24 hours, they’re encouraged to make a modest donation to an ALS charity. If they don’t comply, they’re encouraged to make a bigger donation. Politicians like Mayor Marty Walsh and New Jersey governor Chris Christie have joined in. Ethel Kennedy, the 86-year-old widow of Robert Kennedy, nominated President Obama, who will be making a donation. So far, Frates has raised a staggering $5 million for the ALS Association since July 29. That, in itself, conveys a sense of hope. For this brilliant cause marketing blockbuster, Frates takes the Golden Mic.