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Why did the Ice Bucket Challenge do so well?

Back in the summer of 2014, the internet was awash, almost literally, with videos of people throwing buckets of water over themselves. Why? Because of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

You may not have participated in this yourself, but you’ll almost certainly have seen the videos. The idea was to throw the water over yourself, then nominate three friends to do the same. Should they not step up to the challenge, they must donate money towards a charity focusing on ALS (known as motor neurone disease in the UK).

In just a few weeks over the summer period, people shared over 1.2 million videos on Facebook and mentioned the challenge more than 2.2 million times on Twitter. This yielded a massive $41.8 million in donations from 739,000 new donors.


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The campaign went on to more than double this and has run every year since, albeit with diminishing returns.

That’s great! How can my charity replicate this success?

Viral phenomenons like this come along very, very rarely. It would be optimistic, to put it mildly, to plan for such fortune. That being said, there are a number of key ingredients within the Ice Bucket Challenge that made it the success it was.

Let’s break it down to give a clearer idea of exactly what you would need to do in order to boost the viral chances of your marketing campaigns.

1. It had a strong “human” element

The first ingredient is the human element. The very nature of pouring water over oneself, on camera, to be put on the internet was effective at removing any pretence. It was authentic.

Every squeal from the willing victim as they doused themselves with icy water made us shudder. Every laugh made us smile.

It was this breaking down of barriers and enabling the viewer to connect with other people in this way – through harmless entertainment, even at the expense of complete strangers – that helped engage us in the campaign.

Takeaway: How can your campaign connect and engage with others?

2. Video is an engaging medium

There is a reason that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have all been heavily pushing video on their networks; video is a great way to communicate. Video can be shared on all social networks, is easily consumed and more engaging than static images or text. This might be a sad acknowledgement for some, but video is where the web is headed and the Ice Bucket Challenge hit the wave at just the right time.

Takeaway: Try to utilise short, interesting video in your marketing comms.

3. It was a challenge!

A campaign cannot go viral without mass participation, and as our third ingredient shows; by introducing the challenge element people took part en masse. The key here was to challenge three friends to take part in the challenge, and for each of those three friends to do the same.

This meant the campaign took off quickly, multiplying with each new participant in a seemingly exponential way. For many, it’s hard to resist a challenge, and this one in particular was fun, harmless and for a good cause, so people got behind it willingly.

Takeaway: What makes you share or react to something? Explore this idea and build it into your marketing plan.

4. Celebrity endorsement

Many famous individuals got involved which helped give the campaign significant exposure and a sort of gold seal of approval, as far as marketing campaigns go. Everyone from Bill Gates to Lady Gaga participated.

This was a key ingredient in virality, and as many charities have celebrity ambassadors this is an important takeaway. Not just celebrities, but politicians and athletes also took part, so be sure to keep your networks in mind when dreaming up your next marketing campaign.

Takeaway: If you can get a big name or two behind your idea, the sky’s the limit.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Marketing campaigns in general fail to deliver anything like the viral prevalence of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

But when you break it down and look at its separate component parts, you get to see the mechanics behind it. In this particular case, a lot of luck was involved as a few factors came into play at the same time (warm weather, mobile devices to record on, social networks with support for video etc) but they all coalesced around a good idea consisting of these individual ingredients.

To make your charity’s marketing campaigns work for you, come up with an idea and make sure you implement at least some of these ingredients. Then do it again, and again, until you get lucky.
Matt Saunders
Matt Saunders is founder and owner of Charity Box, a web design company that builds websites for UK charities. Matt has been making websites since 2001 and recently started a social enterprise to help charities maximise their impact through digital.