TL;DR: The ALS Association, with the help of three men suffering from ALS, started a fundraising campaign called the Ice Bucket Challenge. People would film themselves being doused with ice water to raise awareness for ALS and drive donations to the Association. But, what started as a simple funding drive became a global viral phenomenon.

So What? Marketers can only dream of the engagement that the Ice Bucket Challenge drove. But you can’t just manufacture that success–an actual viral campaign takes authenticity, a good cause or product, and a little luck to get off the ground.

Many digital marketers are searching for that “holy grail”: the viral campaign. We know what one looks like; we’ve seen them in the wild, but the secret sauce for creating one is a mixture of expertise, timeliness, and luck.

So, when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge hit the Internet in 2014, no one would have thought it would have exploded like it did. However, a mixture of uniqueness, interactivity, and a good cause turned it from a small inspiration into a global phenomenon with many lessons for marketers.

What Was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

The Ice Bucket Challenge was started by three men living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Anthony Senerchia, Pete Frates, and Pat Quinn published the first videos on behalf of the ALS Association to raise awareness of the disease and potentially raise donations for research.

The challenge involved people dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads and then nominating others to do the same within 24 hours. Challenged people could either accept and do the ice bucket dump or donate to ALS research, or often, and participants chose to do both.

The main goal of the challenge was to raise awareness and funds for ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The campaign was massively successful, raising significant funds for research and bringing widespread attention to the disease. Many celebrities, athletes, and public figures participated, helping to spread the challenge globally.

A Recipe for a Viral Campaign

Today, most people are aware of the Ice Bucket Challenge. (It’s hard not to be.) Throughout the campaign, the Ice Bucket Challenge:

  • Raised $115 million in the summer of 2014, up from $2.8 million the previous summer.
  • Raised $200 million for the ALS Association overall.
  • Accounted for over 17 million challenge video uploads on Facebook, watched by an estimated 440 million people.

Many of us can only imagine that kind of engagement. But what led to such success?

  • Authenticity: First and foremost, this project felt organic–because it was. These three men decided to put something out in the world with sincerity and a sense of fun, which resonates with almost any audience.
  • Simplicity and Fun: The challenge was simple and entertaining, making it easy for people of all ages to participate. This created a sense of community and interactivity, pulling people in with the activity and making it seem collective.
  • Personal Connection and Community: Speaking of community… many of the participants were directly or indirectly affected by ALS, and the pathos of their struggles simply touched many others. This personal connection motivated participation and donations.
  • Media Coverage: As the challenge grew, it gained extensive coverage in the media, further fueling interest and participation. The campaign’s novelty and explosive popularity made it a frequent topic in news outlets, both online and offline.
  • Celebrity Buy-In: Many high-profile celebrities, athletes, and public figures participated in the challenge, posting their videos on social media platforms. This included people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and even Leonardo Dicaprio, along with many others who attended and challenged other famous friends to participate. The involvement of celebrities significantly amplified the reach and visibility of the challenge.
  • Social Media Dynamics: The challenge was perfectly suited for social media, combining a visual, easy-to-share format with interactive elements. Participants filmed themselves performing the challenge, posted the video online, and tagged friends to challenge them next. This created a chain reaction, with each post encouraging new participants.

Marketer Takeaway

While that list seems self-evident in 2024, it wasn’t predictable a decade ago. And, of course, we can learn a lot from the success of the campaign:

  • Campaigns Go Viral Organically: The truly “viral” campaigns become so because people pick them up, not because there is a magic formula to force their popularity. Don’t be a try-hard. Stick with an authentic expression of your brand, values, sense of humor, etc.
  • Think Interactively: If you can promote some activity, something that people can do and share, then you make it much more likely that a campaign will draw an audience invested in participating in social media.
  • Think Fun, Laughter, and Lightness: ALS is a serious topic, but the three originators of this challenge were able to tap into something fun and lighthearted despite that. It allows viewers to feel emotionally connected to their challenges without making the messaging oppressive or off-putting.

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