Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a Social Media Blockbuster

Most companies should envy the financial and brand awareness brought about by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The campaign's key ingredient, says John Deighton, is that participants enhance their personal capital in performance of a good deed.
by John Deighton

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.

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    • Bruce Horwitz
    The ice bucket challenge has morphed (for the better) because of the social media phenomenon you cite. Originally it was "take my dare OR donate" but now (apparently) it has become "take my dare AND donate", where taking the dare in both cases gives you the right to challenge three more people.

    Under the original "rules", those who doused themselves were essentially saving themselves the $100 which would miss the "good cause" part. Lacking the "social capital" requirement for emulation you mention, the challenge would have not caught on without the morph to making the donation (how many times are you going to look at someone pour ice water on themselves to avoid making a donation!).

    Most interestingly, the change of "rules" was spontaneous. Perhaps social media has a collective intelligence(?)
    • Bryan Fleming
    • founder, BuildingSocialProof.com
    The ice bucked challenge is probably the most successful viral campaign ever. But I think it is because social media has become more popular than ever.

    That means an even bigger one is just down the road!
    • deborah nixon
    • Senior Associate, DPRA Canada
    It spiralled because of celebrity involvement. Until that moment, it was confined to a small group of people. The power of celebrity fuelled it- plain and simple. I think your analysis that it is social media is correct, but social media in and of itself has no impact without users propelling it forward. Celebrities did that.

    Celebrities have huge power and it's good to see them harnessing it for worthy social causes.
    • Anonymous
    While I applaud the intentions and the outcome, I am dismayed at the colossal waste of water. Coming from a third world country where water is acutely scarce, I hope the next good idea focuses on conservation rather than waste. Think about it!
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    ALS experience has added to my knowledge of how progress has been achieved. Brand harnessing using stunts is a novel idea. The fund raising technique is also worth noting.
    • Pep Subirana
    • Consumer Behaviour Blogger, headsushi.com
    Prof. Deighton, I thoroughly agree with your insight about the Ice Bucket Challenge: It's both the perfect "look at me" narcissistic material to post on Facebook and yes, it also endows one's self-concept (as presented to others) with an aura of benignity: "I'm OK; I have a good heart; I care about human causes". Good thinking professor!

    Pep Subirana. Author of the Consumer Behaviour Blog http://www.headsushi.com
    • Anonymous
    Honestly, how many gallons of fresh water were dumped? I wonder if young girls in Developing nations worldwide would support this challenge considering gathering a "bucket" of water happens to be one of the primary reasons they don't attend school. #thegirleffect ....water and #themilleniumdevelopmentgoals