Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge Still Relevant in 2019

Digital Fundraising

In August of 2014, in just 4 short weeks, over 1 million Facebook videos and 94 million dollars towards ALS.org was raised.
The numbers are remarkable. The videos are entertaining. And the impact on raising awareness and advocacy around ALS is very real. Even the president at the time showed his support.
There is little doubt that the Ice Bucket Challenge has been a run-away, one-time fundraising success. The data from Google Trends shows how this moment in 2014 was never even close to being reached again in the past 5 years.

However, there is still a small pulse of interest that seems to linger around ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge around August every year.

While reproducing such a campaign is akin to catching lightning in a bottle, there are some interesting new fundraising tools like Facebook Donation buttons and Instagram Donation Stickers that might help foster the next social Ice Bucket Challenge. Combining this with some of the lessons learned from 2014 could inform your non-profit’s next fundraising efforts.

1. Reciprocity is Real

Splash. An Ice Bucket Challenge shows up on your Facebook wall. Everyone can see it. Everyone is expecting you to creatively respond within 24 HOURS! After all, your friend doused themselves in ice water to earn the right to challenge others. Social pressure is on publics and you can’t let them down…
At the core of human interactions is reciprocity: You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Celebrated author of Influence, Robert 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 is Powerful

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 facilitates 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.

5. Authority of Celebrities and Influencers

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. In 2019 there are more social influencers ready to share the next hot (or cold?) thing that will show their relevance. This will only help the rapid spread of the next viral fundraising hit especially when combined with Instagram and Facebook giving features.

6. People Love Public Praise

The Ice Bucket Challenge gave individuals a way to publicly signal that they were charitable to their entire social network while NOT seemingly like they were bragging. Think about how this element of recognition might be designed into a campaign that allowed people to humblebrag that they were supporting your cause while still maintaining the altruistic intent.

Other Articles

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