5 Reasons Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was Successful

4 weeks. 1 million Facebook videos. 94 million dollars towards ALS.org.

The numbers are remarkable. The videos are entertaining. And the impact towards raising awareness and advocacy around ALS is very real. Even the president showed his support.

There is little doubt that the Ice Bucket Challenge has been a run-away fundraising success. While reproducing such a campaign is highly implausible, there are some lessons that can be learned to inform your non-profit’s next fundraising efforts. With hindsight as 20/20, here are some of the elements that helped catapult the Ice Bucket Challenge into viral fundraising lore.

1. Reciprocity

Splash. An Ice Bucket Challenge shows up on your Facebook wall. Everyone can see it. Everyone is expecting you to respond within 24 HOURS! After all, your friend doused himself in ice water to earn the right to challenge three people and he chose you. You can’t let him down!

At the core of human interactions is reciprocity: You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Persuasion guru Dr. Cialdini says that this instinctive drive to not feel indebted causes us to “feel obliged to offer concessions or discounts to others if they have offered them to us.” When your friend braves the ice water and then calls you out, this pressure to reciprocate manifests itself.

2. Public Social Proof

There’s safety in numbers. This is the same principle that cautions people to avoid restaurants that don’t seem busy at dinner rush hour. We often use other people (especially our friends) as social proof that something is good. As the Ice Bucket Challenges videos poured out on our newsfeeds, each one of these videos implicitly provided support and vouched for the legitimacy of the ALS foundation.

One of the main barriers to donation is lack of trust. It would be foolish to support a cause whose benefits or mission we are uncertain about. But, when we see people similar to us publicly broadcast their support for ALS, issues of trust and uncertainty quickly evaporate. Nobody wants to be the first penguin in the ice water; fortunately, our Facebook feeds are full of safe penguins.

3. Inherent Viral Loop Starting in a Trusted Network

When the media says something has ‘gone viral,’ they mean it has hit a high threshold of general public awareness over a short period of time. When technologists and digital marketers talk about virality, it means the very nature of the product or message is something that has exponential growth potential.

In the book Viral Loop, Adam Penenberg explains that a viral loop is constructed when a system is able to turn one new user into at least 1.1 new users through referral. Simple examples of this are those terrible chain mail letters that dominated the early 2000’s – “Send this message to 10 friends or else something bad will happen to you.” This kind of message is able to proliferate at an exponential rate because when grandma sends this email to 10 of her friends, at least 2 people will decide to forward it on.

In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, virality was built into the fabric of the design: one person is challenged and then asked to challenge 3 new people, thus building a viral loop. The viral loop design was then seeded in a close knit Boston sports community, where people with trusted close ties then spread the message. In the same way that Facebook would have met with colossal failure if it didn’t start in a trusted college network, a broad challenge issued by ALS.org nationally would not have met with the same success.

4. Authentic Story

ALS is a scary friggin’ disease. It strikes unexpectedly and is nearly always fatal. There is no debate around it. There is nothing partisan or controversial about it, as there often is with small NGO’s. Such a universal cause faciliates involvement from a wide array of people. Politicians and celebrities don’t need to worry about putting their precious reputations on the line.

Interestingly, the Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t something whipped up by savvy marketers. Though it is now ubiquitous, it spread organically from the genuine efforts of Pete Brates and a caring BC baseball team. There was hardly any advertising done by the ALS foundation, but rather, people enthusiastically shared the message on their own volition. In sum, supporting ALS is a good cause, and it was easy for people to get behind.

5. Authority of celebrities

Celebrities and authority figures provide another sort of social proof. Cialdini writes that “we feel a sense of duty or obligation” towards these people, which serves to motivate action. Seeing luminaries such as Bill Gates, Lebron James and Oprah take part in the challenge helped to imbue the cause with significance and credibility. Not only were our friends taking the time to support ALS, but so were these big name celebrities- who probably have a little less time to spare.

The big challenge that remains for ALS is how to spend the money wisely. After all, 94 million dollars is not just a drop in the bucket.

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Hey Cynics, hold that cold water: Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Worked – Tom Watson

Is a downer news cycle a factor in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? – Beth Kanter