Why Did the Ice Bucket Challenge Spread Like Wildfire?


If you’ve been on social media anytime in the last two weeks, it’s safe to say you’ve seen at least one ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video. Once named by a friend, participants have 24 hours to post a video pouring a bucket of ice water over their heads, or else donate $100 to ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) research. After completing the challenge, participants can call out others to do the same.


Seemingly overnight, an Internet sensation was born.


But for every ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, there are a million other failed attempts to create viral awareness for a cause, business, or idea. What is it about this challenge, in particular, that helped raise over $22 million for the ALS Association in under one month?


There are a zillion moving pieces that go into any social campaign, so obviously this isn’t the be all end all of why it was successful. But the ALS Challenge definitely incorporates some elements that I have found to be successful during my four years working in social media.


1. It started small.
The Ice Bucket Challenge didn’t start with worldwide domination – it started in the smaller community of Boston College. I first saw videos in my newsfeed from BC alums, wearing BC gear, and challenging their other BC friends. If you have friends that go/went to BC, you know they are obsessed with all things BC, so naturally, the challenge spread like wildfire. Starting small, with a pep squad that you can bring in to get the ball rolling, is a great way to gain momentum.
2. It’s simple, seasonal, and quick.
The beauty of the Challenge is in its simplicity. Once nominated, people just need to fill a bucket with ice water, prop up a smart phone, and hit record. Bingo bango bongo. Timing is important too – having an Ice Bucket Challenge in January wouldn’t be nearly as successful. Once nominated, a person has only 24 hours to complete the challenge so there’s no time to dilly dally. Having a simple, quick challenge that makes sense in the general context is a great place to start.
3. It gets us involved…in a non-conceited way.
If the rise of the selfie has taught us anything, it’s that people like to be seen on social media. We like showing our face and being heard, especially when we have an excuse and don’t seem vain doing it. The Millennial generation in particular feel our voices deserve to be heard. This Challenge gives us a way to put ourselves out there without seeming like conceited jerks.
4. It’s funny and light.
I used to manage social media for a summer camp, and we posted a photo of their famously mustachioed chef, saying that if the photo got over 500 likes, he would shave it for the first time in 15 years. With only around 2,500 fans, we thought this was super ambitious, but we hit our goal in under 24 hours. In the world of the Internet, sex funny sells, and who doesn’t like seeing a buddy douse themselves in freezing cold water?


5. It feels good to do good.
Finally, it feels warm and fuzzy to support a good cause. Touted as a positive psychology method to ward off depression and anxiety and experience more satisfaction in our lives, helping others just makes you feel good. Knowing that we are a part, no matter how small, of raising awareness of an important issue makes it hard not to accept the challenge.


While these aren’t the only factors that led to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge gaining traction in the social world, they def helped move things along. Keep them in mind if you are ever looking to make a splash (no pun intended) with your messaging.


over to you

Have you participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, or any other Internet-fueled challenge? What made you decide to get involved? Have you ever tried to generate interest for your own sponsored challenge? How did it go?

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© Whitney Ryan LLC

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