In 2009, technology researchers at Forrester published a report entitled We Are All Media Companies Now, that looked at how publishing firms were dealing with the shift from a distribution paradigm to one based on consumption. By 2014, the paradigm is being experienced not just by companies but increasingly by individuals. People who use Facebook and Twitter are for all practical purposes running little media houses, and face the problem of their much larger brethren, where will the next story come from? Originality is too time-consuming: emulation is inevitable. Fads ensue.
What gets emulated? Anything that can contribute to social capital. The content must be easy to create but not as easy as photographing one's morning cappuccino. For example, someone in Toronto snapped a selfie with the controversial mayor Rob Ford. Overnight, hunting Rob Ford became a Toronto sport, and your face next to his became social currency across Canada.
It's easy to write off these fads as simple stunts of digital narcissism, but they matter to marketing because they carry incidental meaning. It was not lost on Ford's reelection team that media coverage on Facebook was as good as, perhaps better than, press coverage. Selfies with Ford carried the incidental meaning that he was one of the people, a fun-loving regular guy. He began to make himself selfie-friendly.
“The challenge that brands encounter is that their involvement could come off as merely jumping on the bandwagon”
Brands, too, ask how they can become incidental props in these viral stunts. The challenge that brands encounter, however, is that their involvement could come off as merely jumping on the bandwagon because spreadable stunts tend to carry no meaning beyond the stunt itself. Take "planking" for example. An early Facebook fad, planking is the act of lying face-down in an incongruous place. It is the epitome of digital narcissism and any hint of motive other than "look at me" just clouds the picture.
By contrast, the ALS ice bucket challenge offers an example of a brand harnessing the energy of a narcissistic fad on social networks in service to the brand itself. The usual elements are there: an act that is incongruous, not easy to do, and screams "look at me." Yet here, the incidental meaning is not at all dissociated from the personal meaning. I'm making myself uncomfortable for ALS. I'm recruiting the anti-ALS cause to enhance my personal capital. Alas, for marketers looking for low-cost market impact, few commercial brands enhance personal capital. Few are as powerful as cause brands.
How has it worked? As of Wednesday, August 20, The ALS Association has received $31.5 million in donations compared to $1.9 million during the same time period (July 29 to August 20) last year.
This remarkable increase in their fundraising potential is largely due to the snowball effect of cause marketing coupled with a social medial fad. Celebrities are jumping in on the action. Sports teams are not far behind. In fact, almost everyone who is challenged by a friend, coworker, or family member joins in.
If ice buckets can help fund research to shed light on a terrible disease, such as ALS, more power to them, and may their tribe increase.