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5 Viral Marketing Lessons from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Marketing Lessons for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

First, I’d like to mention that more than anything, I’m pleased how much the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised for the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association.

According to a recent article by BBC News, the challenge has not only raised awareness with 2.4 million ice bucket related videos posted to Facebook and 28 million people having uploaded, commented on, or liked an ice-bucket related video, but it has also increased donations with $95.5 million more dollars given from July 29 to August 28 of this year compared to the same period last year.

That’s the definition of a successful campaign—one that drives both awareness and generates results.

Google Trends ALS

So what can we learn from this campaign for other organizations looking to drive awareness and for businesses that would like to increase the virality of their own projects? From what I’ve studied, there are five primary lessons to be learned.

Lesson #1: Doing something visible increases virality

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor from the Wharton Business School who’s studied viral trends extensively, talks about this in his book Contagious where he explains that doing something visible increases virality. It makes sense when you think about it, but let’s talk about what exactly that means.

Professor Berger uses an example in his book of the ever so famous white headphones that were shipped with iPod which stood out from the black headphones that people had been wearing for many years prior. As soon as you saw white headphones, you knew the owner was rocking out with an iPod.

iPod headphones

The headphones became instant advertisement. They were highly visible, and if a cool person was using one, you knew it right away. Whether you were walking on a campus, getting onto a subway, or working out at the gym, you were constantly reminded about the beautiful new music player known as an iPod tucked away in super cool people’s pockets.

So here’s the principle: It helps to do something visible in order to generate more awareness, i.e. increases virality. If it’s not visible, it’s going to have a harder time going viral.

And here’s how that fits in with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Before the Challenge, ALS was something only a small number of people thought about on a daily basis. If you had a family member who was suffering from the condition, then you were acutely aware of it’s debilitating effect. But if not, then you were oblivious, for the most part.

That all changed with the Challenge. It turned something nearly invisible into something that popped up everywhere you turned. It was on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, the local news, events you showed up to, etc. All of a sudden ALS became a household subject, in large part because of the extra visibility created by the campaign.

This all comes down to a very important marketing principle—awareness. If people don’t know your product exists, it’s going to be difficult for them to decide whether or not they’re interested enough to make a purchase. Yes, the goal is a sale, or in this case a donation, but it all starts with people being aware of the product or problem.

It’s also important to mention that social media and the sharing cycle we currently live in contributed to the campaign’s success. It would be much harder to create a similarly visible campaign 10 years ago without the mass use of smart phones for instant recording, uploading, and sharing, which means current technology played a big part in the campaign.

But more than anything, it was a campaign that created more visibility for ALS and inserted itself into our daily lives over and over again. If you’re looking to create a similar campaign, generating more visibility is a great place to start.

Lesson #2: Strike the right emotional chord

The next lesson to learn is to strike the right emotional chord.

Mr. Berger also talks about this in Contagious and explains that the right emotions increase virality while the wrong ones decrease it. He divides emotions into the following categories with high arousal being the best for increasing virality:

  • Positive + High Arousal: Awe, excitement, amusement (humor)
  • Negative + High Arousal: Anger, anxiety
  • Positive + Low Arousal: Contentment
  • Negative + Low Arousal: Sadness

Mr. Berger explains that high arousal emotions increase sharing and virality while low arousal decreases sharing, even if it’s positive.

This means that a campaign of this sort needs to strike the right emotional chord in order to encourage sharing. How did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge do just that?

It accomplished this by creating a campaign that elicited a positive and high arousal emotion—amusement (humor). While watching someone get a bucket of ice water dumped on your head, you can’t help but be amused because it’s funny, which is exactly the type of emotion you want to target.

Another approach would have been to create a campaign that emphasized the debilitating affect ALS has on people’s lives. They could have created videos in an attempt to evoke this type of emotional response which would result in a depressing effect. The only problem is that’s the wrong type of emotion.

A video that focuses on how much people suffer from ALS would have an impact, and there’s no reason not to make these types of videos to clearly show what people who have the disease live with and go through, but it wouldn’t be the type of video everyone wanted to share with all their friends. Why? Because it’s negative and low arousal, according to Mr. Berger. The people who have family members with ALS may share this kind of video, but the average person wouldn’t because that’s not the kind of content they want to share with their friends.

The takeaway is that the right emotions need to be targeted if you want to have any chance of creating a campaign that goes viral.

Lesson #3: Push the buttons of buzz

The next thing to do is to push the buttons of buzz (something I’ve written about previously for the KISSmetrics blog). By pushing the buttons of buzz, you increase the chances your campaign will go viral. So what are they?

Mark Hughes in Buzzmarketing lists them as:

  1. The taboo
  2. The unusual
  3. The outrageous
  4. The hilarious
  5. The remarkable
  6. The secrets

These are the six buttons he’s found from experience and observation that can be pushed to purposefully encourage people to talk about a brand. Which button does the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge push, you ask? Two of them: the unusual.

Let’s start with the unusual. To do something unusual is to do something unique. If you do something that’s never been done before, the novelty will get people talking.

This  means that an ice bucket challenge will probably work once and only once, and challenges in general will probably work for a little while, but eventually, the novelty will likely wear off. To push the unusual button, you need to do something unique that stands out and hasn’t been done before. (But if you are looking to do something similar to the Ice Bucket Challenge, I predict another non-ice bucket challenge will pop up soon and ride the wave of this craze. Will it be yours?)

Is it possible to purposefully push these buttons? The answer is yes.

Just last week, I was emailed the same IKEA video twice by two different people. It’s a spoof on Apple commercials and technology, and it’s quite funny. IKEA purposefully created something hilarious, and people are sharing the video as a result, something that rarely happens with commercials.

Businesses and organizations can get a similar result by remembering to push one of the the six buttons of buzz for their campaigns.

Lesson #4: Celebrity participation

The next factor that helped the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge succeed is the fact that celebrities voluntarily participated. There were videos created by Bill Gates, Lebron James, and many other highly visible celebrities.

Why does this make a difference? It makes a difference because celebrities have a large, built in platform. If you want me to share a video with the people who pay attention to what I do, I’m going to reach a fraction of the number of people that Lebron James will when he tweets to his 14.4 million more followers on Twitter. Not to mention all the media coverage he gets for his every move, the number of people who follow him on Facebook and Instagram, etc. etc.

Lebron James Twitter

Celebrities have a built in platform that helps to amplify a message. And that amplification affects average Joe’s like myself who take the same video and share it with their 1,500 Facebook friends which spreads the message even further. Every video helps to spread awareness, but celebrities are the 90 mile per hour winds that cause a message to spread like wildfire.

It’s important to note that Mark Hughes also mentions in Buzzmarketing that voluntary celebrity endorsements have a bigger impact than paid. As soon as you pay a celebrity to endorse you, people realize they’re doing it for money, not necessarily because of their belief in the product, but if you have a celebrity who just happens to use your product, that will have a bigger impact. Paid endorsements still work, but non-paid is even better.

This just so happens to be what occurred with the Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities voluntarily created videos (and voluntarily made contributions) without being asked to be a spokesperson which also increased the viral nature of the campaign.

Case in point: Bill Gates’ video alone has 19,578,457 views on Youtube and counting.

Lesson #5: Having a clear call to action

The fifth and final lesson I noticed is the fact that the campaign had a clear call to action where the next participants were “called out” to take the challenge. This creates an immediate viral loop, similar to a chain email that gets sent to 10 new people each time and requests that they email 10 more.

Think about it this way: For something to go viral it means that it’s spreading exponentially and not just linearally. If one person tells three people about your campaign it’s technically viral, but if only every other person tells one person, then you don’t have viral growth. Viral growth means that on average each person is telling more than one other person and they in turn tell more than one other person.

This appears to be one of the main factors that kept the campaign alive. Instead of just watching the videos, new people were challenged each time. This clear call to act kept the chain alive with new people responding and challenging three more participants. Videos kept getting recorded because three people were asked to do so each time.

Here are the takeaways from this point:

  1. Whenever possible, use a very clear call to action to ask/direct/tell people what you want them to do next. “Please share this campaign” is better than leaving it up to people to decide to do so.
  2. Be as clear as clear as possible about what action you want people to take. This means “help us out by emailing the campaign to at least five people” is even better than the call to action listed above.
  3. Do whatever you can to add a viral factor to your campaign. Even challenging as few as three people, from what we’ve seen, can be enough to keep a campaign alive.

More Points to Consider

After sharing all of these lessons, there are few more things to consider when it comes to viral campaigns.

  1. They’re hit and miss. You can use the lessons above to increase the chances your campaign will go viral along with reading and studying Contagious and Buzzmarketing, but often the factor that causes something to go viral is hard to find. You might make 10 “viral” campaigns and only one of them actually goes viral. Why? Because that one campaign struck the right chord that encouraged people to share. Just keep in mind that viral campaigns are hit and miss, and it’s not recommended that you put all your eggs into this basket.
  2. A viral campaign needs to contribute to your bottom line. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a success not because of the sheer numbers of videos that were created but because of the awareness and the donations it generated. Success is ultimately measured by the right needle getting pushed and not necessarily viral alone and just because a video or a campaign goes viral doesn’t mean it’s going to help your bottom line, whatever that might mean for your organization.
  3. Viral campaigns like the ALS Challenge may be easier for non-profits to pull off. The fact that it’s for a good cause makes it more enjoyable to share. However, an approach businesses could take is to support a good cause in order to create a beneficial brand exposure. That would be marketing dollars well spent.

In the end, it’s ok to want a campaign to go viral and even to plan accordingly by attempting to pull the right levers, but you’d be wise not to expect to hit a home run every single time. With that said, a grand slam like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge can have an exponential impact that several small wins combined together could never match.

Over to you: Are there any other factors you noticed that contributed to the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Leave a comment to share what other factors you think contributed to the campaign’s success.


Joe Putnam Headshot
Joe Putnam is the blog editor at iSpionage. You can keep up with him on Twitter at @josephputnam.