You’ve all heard of it. Most of you have probably done it. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s fun, and it’s for a good cause. I’m talking, of course, about the Ice Bucket Challenge. The viral series of challenges that took over the Internet in the summer of 2014 had people pouring buckets of ice water on themselves left and right to raise awareness and money for ALS. Within 24 hours of being nominated, one must either accept the challenge and participate themselves or donate $100 to charity. Although the challenge eventually became centered around ALS, the Ice Bucket Challenge can trace its roots back to a fundraising campaign in March of 2014 to raise money for Madi Rogers, a one-year-old diabetic child who needed a service dog. The challenge was originally called the Cold Water Challenge and dared its participants to leap into a cold body of water, such as a lake or pool, donate to Roger’s service dog fundraiser, and then nominate another person to complete the challenge.
The parallels between this challenge and the Ice Bucket Challenge are evident, but the beginning of the transition to the first Ice Bucket Challenge that we know of today are unclear. However, motocross racer Jeremy McGrath produced one of the earliest known videos of someone pouring ice water on themselves in June later that year. He then challenged NASCAR celebrity Jimmie Johnson, rapper Vanilla Ice and golfer Rickie Fowler to complete the Ice Bucket Challenge or donate $100, and the challenged then began to spread throughout celebrities. The challenge became more and more popular following Matt Lauer’s completion of the Ice Bucket Challenge on The Today Show.
When the Ice Bucket Challenge first gained traction, there was no specific cause or charity associated with it. However, by July of 2014 the Ice Bucket Challenge had primarily become associated with ALS as a way to raise funds for the ALS Foundation. The ties with ALS were strengthened when professional golfer Chris Kennedy posted a video of him completing the challenge and nominating his cousin, whose husband has ALS. Kennedy’s cousin’s response video was seen by Pat Quinn, who serves as an ambassador for the ALS Foundation and circulated the challenge among his network of peers. He also created a Facebook group called “Quinn for the Win,” which outlined the rules for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Over the next few weeks, more celebrities and athletes accepted the challenge and spread it throughout their social media, calling on friends to either participate and/or donate.
By the end of the summer in 2014, after the challenge had time to make its way around the Internet and reach tens of millions of people, the ALS Association reported that they received nearly $115 million in donations. Much of the money raised went to researching the disease and developing drugs to help treat patients diagnosed with ALS. Eventually, researchers were able to use their new funding to discover a new gene tied to ALS, something that would have been much more difficult to accomplish without the help of the Ice Bucket Challenge.
So, what can digital marketers and brands learn from the famous Ice Bucket Challenge? If nothing else, the Ice Bucket Challenge proved how powerful a role social media can play when it comes to marketing a philanthropic cause. Over the summer of 2014, Facebook alone had upwards of 28 million people involved in conversation about the challenge with nearly 2.5 million videos posted to the platform. The viral spread of the challenge would not have been possible without the use of social media. However, the success of the challenge had many other components as well.
First, and arguably most important when it comes to this particular challenge, was the timing. Obviously, the Ice Bucket Challenge would not have been successful if the movement tried to get going in December (unless hypothermia was part of the challenge). By waiting until summer, the movement not only made sure that the weather would be warm enough, but they also waited for people to have more free time to complete and engage with the challenge, as many people do over the summer.
Second, making the challenge about something important and personal for many people inspired others to participate more than they usually would. Besides the challenge being a fun way to cool off and challenge friends, one of the aspects that made it so special was that everyone who participated knew that they were either leading to donations or increased awareness of a disease that thousands of people in the US are diagnosed with every year.
Third, celebrities are immensely helpful in generating awareness for a cause. It’s unlikely the Ice Bucket Challenge would have reached the magnitude that it did were it not for a push from celebrities to get the challenge to go viral and to spread it across their social media platforms. Because of the huge reach that many of these influential celebrities have, they were able to expedite the circulation of the challenge and give the trend more credibility. Furthermore, when people see their favorite celebrities participating, it makes the fans want to get in on the trend as well!
Lastly, much of the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge can be attributed to the simplicity and fun behind it. A challenge that is too complicated or in which there are too many steps can lose its broad appeal and prevent it from going mainstream and viral. This hurts the spread of the message and limits the potential reach and impact that it could have. The Ice Bucket Challenge kept things easy and accessible, as everyone has a bucket and ice, and everyone has some friends who they wouldn’t mind pouring ice-cold water on. By adding in the dimension of challenging one’s friends to participate as well, the challenge stayed alive because each video leads to three new people who are nominated at the end of each video. The brevity of the name “Ice Bucket Challenge” also makes for an easy hashtag that can be spread on social media with ease.
Many brands were quick to notice how getting in on the newest trend and creating their own Ice Bucket Challenge videos could be a quick, easy, and effective way to create positive publicity with their customers. The Old Spice guy created a hilarious video, Samsung demonstrated how weatherproof their Galaxy S5 is, and even good old Ronald McDonald got in on the fun. These brands were able to use this opportunity not only to increase their exposure and to improve their likeability among their social media followers, but in the case of Samsung’s ad shown above, they were even able to market the impressive features of their new product.
All in all, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a fun way to stay cool, help ALS research, and spread fun through social media. By creating their own videos, companies were able to market themselves and interact with their followers at the same time. The Ice Bucket Challenge proved that promoting a good cause can be easy and fun, and that, with the right marketing, can be a great opportunity for brands.