Ice Bucket Challenge: Why So Successful?

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Anyone who’s on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media network as seen it: Video clips of athletes, celebrities and just plain old regular people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads. Each person states that they are taking the ice bucket challenge to raise awareness for ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Then they nominate three (or four, or five) other people to do the same. Each person nominated had 24 hours to take the challenge by dumping a bucket of ice water over their head, or they’re supposed to donate $100 to ALS research.

It started with Pete Frates, a former baseball player from Boston College, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. In addition to fighting his own decline, he decided to try to increase funding for ALS research. A couple of his friends had heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge being done to raise money and awareness for charities, and, at the end of July 2014, they decided to take it to social media for their friend Pete Frates.

Most people are dousing themselves with ice water, and donating as well. Between July 29, when Frates’ friends first took the challenge, and August 19, the ALS Association raised $22.9 million, compared to $1.9 million in the same time period the year before. The Association says that 453,210 people donated to the cause who had not donated before. As of August 15, less than three weeks after the challenge began, 2.4 million videos had been posted on Facebook, according to TIME magazine.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been taken by celebrities, like Jimmy Fallon and his band, who took it on the Tonight Show; Justin Timberlake; and even Oprah Winfrey. Entire teams of athletes and entire police and fire departments have taken it. Ethel Kennedy and George W. Bush have taken it.

There are a lot of worthy causes that do a lot of fundraising and social media has been a boon for many of them. People post about their upcoming walks, runs and bike rides. So, why has this particular campaign become so widespread and successful? Three reasons:

1. The network. Pete Frates went to Boston College, which has a very large and very strong alumni network. The friends who started the challenge, challenged their BC friends and classmates, who then challenged others. Soon it spread beyond the BC community.

2. The power of compounding. Each person who takes the challenge is supposed to nominate three others. Many nominate more than three. It may not sound like much, but do the math. If each person nominates three people, and each of them nominate three people, and so on, it doesn’t take long to get to some very big numbers.

3. The athletes. The challenge is in support of a young college athlete who had his career cut short by this debilitating illness for which there is no cure. Every other amateur and professional athlete is thinking, “That could have been me,” making this challenge very personal for all of them.

None of this would have been possible without social media. The ability for people to use video to show themselves taking the challenge, and to tag their nominees in their posts, is the key to the challenge’s success. The fact that the challenge itself is quirky (and that is leaves its participants cold and soaking wet) doesn’t hurt either.

There may never be another fundraising campaign as successful as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but the lessons learned about social media will stay with both non-profit organizations and for-profit marketers for a long time to come.

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