Have you ever heard of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis? If you were amongst the 1.2 billion active Facebook users in August 2014, you probably have.
Often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord  and that has been at the core of the massive social media viral campaign known as the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. The concept is simple: dump a bucket of ice water on yourself and nominate 3 people to do the same in order to raise public awareness and show support to this cause.
According to The New York Times, 1.2 million ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ videos have been streamed on Youtube and more than 2.2 millions mentions have been tracked on Twitter between July 29 and August 17 . Still according to the same article, the ALS Association claims to have received $41.8 million in donations from July 29 until August 21 coming from 739,000 new donors.
From a marketing efficiency perspective, these results are truly phenomenal and here are the key takeaways we can draw from this campaign.
#1 A hashtag greater than ourselves
This is not the first time we observe that phenomenon: for a noble cause or in an epic meaning context, people are suddenly willing to do things they would normally never do.
A “no make-up” selfie campaign started in the UK in March this year by asking women to take a picture of them without make-up and use the #nomakeup hashtag to make it viral.
It must be obvious for social media professionals, but understanding the role a hashtag is vital when launching a viral campaign. A hashtag is more than hygiene or aesthetics, it’s also what helps people recognize a trend, follow a movement and spread it through new circles. For marketers, the hashtag is the key to measure viral uplifts and identify influencers in real-time.
#2 The power of influence
While ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge were creating waves internationally, the Indian Celebrity brigade were responsible for making the Ice Bucket Challenge reach the Indian masses. Bollywood and Sports celebrities dominated the celeb nominations and in turn nominated friends and colleagues from their fraternities. While they took up the challenge for various reasons apart from ALS itself (to show off their bodies, to create buzz about themselves, to have some fun, and even to promote their upcoming films) they created considerable content for fans to take notice, share and even comment on. Sania Mirza, infact did the challenge twice on feedback from her fans that she didn’t use enough water the first time!
The influence it created went larger and beyond just ALS and the Ice Bucket to more localised causes such as the Rice Bucket Challenge, in an attempt to feed India’s poor. In a land of scarce potable water, Indian celebs like Sonakshi Sinha, got praises for her witty and sensible attempt, to go through every step of the process sans water/ice, in an attempt to save water, but donate for ALS anyway.
#3 Allow anyone to participate. Invite only
One of the success factors of this campaign was that everyone could participate but the trick was that you had to wait to be nominated by someone. People had to be authorized to dump ice water on their heads and when you think about it, this a bit weird. This therefore created interesting dynamics where people would fear to see their names in the nomination list, but in the same way feel somewhat special for being selected by the other person.
Applying a minimal barrier of entry is a great way to create some sense of exclusivity and generate some frictions that will progressively turn the awareness campaign into a social movement.
#4 Make it painful or amusing. Or both
When you want to grab attention, it’s important to play on basic human emotions. Human beings, especially digital viewers like to live vicariously, so content which speaks to pain, especially when one can laugh at another’s plight often does well. If you like to watch Epic Fail compilations on YouTube, you certainly know what I am talking about.
With The Ice Bucket challenge, to see someone get showered with ice cold water and watching them alternate between shock and flinching made for great viewing pleasure. Added to this, very good looking male celebs in white tees taking the challenge and showing off their soaked abs made for content that just cannot be passed up.
#5 Facebook’s not dead yet
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge used the viral social power of the hashtag function “#IceBucketChallenge” well. It became a trending topic across social media networks but the centre of all the activity was still Facebook. The ability of Facebook to be “content form” agnostic proved helpful because it allowed videos to be added/uploaded, viewed, engaged with and shared from a users news feed itself without having to access any other platform. There were in excess of 2.4 million ice bucket-related videos posted on Facebook, and 28 million people uploaded, commented on or liked ice bucket-related posts
Anyone who believes Facebook is losing relevance should go through the Social Q4 2013 study by GlobalWebIndex (GWI) – the biggest of its kind ever conducted into social media. It revealed findings about the popularity of Facebook, indicating that coverage of its decline in use by teens was exaggerated.
Organic spread might be reaching low single digit numbers but the ice bucket challenge shows that Facebook still has the power to deliver a message and invoke a response from an audience looking for a relevant cause to identify with.
#6 Let users become heroes
We’re tapping here into a very powerful trend in our current digital era. There is this famous quote from Andy Warhol: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” which happen to be a real vision or anticipation. Today, anyone could write a post, post a picture or upload a video and potentially become famous tomorrow, and go back to being a face in the crow the day after.
For marketers and brands, the idea of fame through social media is a great trend to understand. How can we produce content, programs or campaigns that can carry this authentic and genuine aspiration?
#7 There will always be haters
That’s right. Success calls hatred. As soon as the Ice Bucket Challenge became viral, somewhere between Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Bieber, tweets, memes, comments started to flow on Facebook: you’re wasting water, why would you do that?, this is because you don’t want to donate money, etc.
Brands that are interested in jumping into the viral wagon should be aware that negative comments are inevitable when reaching this scale. Whilst the number of haters could be an interesting KPI, the role of a social media marketer is to make sure the right people are buy-in into your campaign.
#8 Don’t forget timing and luck
If the Ice Bucket Challenge would have been launched in January, we would probably have seen none of it. Throwing a bucket of ice water on yourself does feel better when it’s 30 degrees outside than when the temperature is flirting with zero.
This is a great reminder: brand agnostic elements, external conditions, cultural factors can decide if your campaign is going to win you awards or be a total disaster.
Another example: Popsicle brand Snapple attempted to erect the world’s largest popsicle in New-York, twenty-five feet tall and weighing 17.5 tons. But it was 27 degrees outside, you can imagine what happened next.
Ideas are great, especially if they are simple, but they need to be put in context.
Here are 8 takeaways we can learn from this great campaign. The temptation is great to take these insights, replicate dynamics and mechanics to come up with a somewhat similar social media campaign for another brand.
But is there really something new here or revolutionary from a marketing perspective? Maybe not that much… The huge success of the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ is telling social media marketers to revise some of the basics marketing fundamentals: simple gimmicks, natural referrals, promotion channels, endorsement and most importantly defining goals and tracking results.