The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Analyzing Great Viral Marketing for a Great Cause

At this point, if you’ve been on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram in the past two weeks you’ve likely seen a friend or family member take the ice bucket challenge to support ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Viral marketing is still much more art than science, but some common threads run through most successful viral campaigns, whether created by brands or by their loyal fans.
ALS has been a major concern for decades, but why and how is it getting such a high level of awareness right now? A tremendous book on viral marketing called “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” highlights 6 main components of viral content, whether on social media or physical word of mouth. Here’s how the ALS #icebucketchallenge embodies all of them:
1. Social Currency– We share viral content to gain social currency, which is anything that helps them connect with friends and peers, start a conversation or encourage friends to think highly of us. Social currency could range from shock value, intellectual credibility or, as in this case, showcasing the fact that you are a compassionate and kind-hearted human being, without boasting.
2. Triggers– Triggers bring an idea to the top of your mind. I think of the beach when I smell sunscreen, or relive a host of great childhood memories when I visit the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where we took many trips when I was growing up. I also think of taking the subway when I see my MetroCard in my wallet on the way to get my credit card. Since I see my MetroCard so much more frequently than I smell sunscreen or visit the Outer Banks, I consequently think of the subway much more frequently; as a result, the frequency of a trigger is a key part of raising awareness. Advertisements and viral marketing alike both serve as some of the main sources of constant triggers to remind us of products, services or causes that brands want us to focus on. Seeing friends dumping buckets of ice on their heads might get old by next summer, but for right now it’s a source of constant amusement as we check in on social media constantly to see who else has participated.  Likewise, we’ve all seen a funny SuperBowl commercial where we couldn’t remember the associated brand 5 minutes later, so the other key triggering aspect of the ice bucket challenge that it’s successfully tied to the cause of ALS, rather than just being remembered as a funny prank.
3. Emotion– We all know how it feels to jump into freezing cold water, if not dump a bucket of ice water on our heads. Even writing this, the thought of it makes me cringe a little; the effects of a shocking cold plunge clearly strike a universal emotional chord. Not all emotions encourage sharing, however. Awe, laughter and anger drive the most sharing, while sadness drives the lowest amount of sharing. So aim to awe your audience to maximize the sharing potential of whatever you’re creating.
4. Public– Viral marketing happens because it’s got a built-in need to be very public. Mustache March’s manifesto taps into something very public in the physical world, but the ice bucket challenge isn’t something you carry around with you wherever you go, so posting to social media and tagging others that you want to challenge is essential to make it a very public endeavor.
5. Practical Value– This point is exceptionally important, because unless there is some sort of practical value, the trend would be a flash in the pan. In this case, you can opt out of dousing yourself in ice water if you make a donation to a foundation supporting ALS. The Huffington Post cites the ALS Association has increased donations over 1000% in the 10-day period where the challenge has fully gone viral (an important note: the challenge actually started months ago but finally went mainstream in August).
6. Stories– You can bet that if you dump a bucket of ice on your head, you’ll have a story to tell. That effect multiplies when you encounter someone else who has done the same thing, or when you challenge friends. family or celebrities to participate as well. Imagine the talk at prominent dinner tables around the world when 86-year old Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s widow, dumped a bucket of ice water on her head to publicly challenge President Obama to participate?
And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for… someone dumping a bucket of ice on their head:

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