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8 Game-Changing Marketing Lessons From the ALS 'Ice Bucket Challenge'

Understanding why this effort has been so successful might just save your next social media marketing campaign.

If you have any social media presence at all, particularly on Facebook or Instagram, over the past few weeks you have probably noticed a daily influx of video posts in your timeline of people dumping buckets of ice and water over their heads. Fear not--this is not likely in reaction to the effects of global warming or people trying to escape the "heat" being generated by summer boy band tours. This viral phenomenon is the "Ice Bucket Challenge," which is being taken on by growing numbers of men, women, and children to help bring awareness to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The idea of dumping ice water on your head in the name of a cause is not new or innovative, and in fact, earlier this summer it was not even associated specifically with ALS. So how did this movement lead to a record number of donations to ALS research over such a short period of time?

Let's break down some key elements of why this campaign has taken off so quickly and successfully:

1. Anyone can participate.

The target audience is anyone with a smartphone and a social media account--which is just about everyone these days. Even children who don't have social media accounts can participate, which is huge because a large portion of the Facebook user demographic is accustomed to sharing pictures and videos of everything their kids ever do. Aside from the cost of ice, your time, and any donation you make, the entry to be a part of the awareness campaign is essentially free, and the humiliation factor is extremely minimal, which again makes it pretty much a no-brainer for most people.

2. Very simple rules to the "challenge"

I am fairly certain that no one with a legal background wrote the "rules," so it doesn't take an advanced degree or much effort to figure out what to do to participate. All you need is some sort of container, some means of making water freeze, a bunch of people to challenge to keep the movement going, a few hashtags (more on that below) and about 15 minutes to set up and do it. If you don't want to post a video, go to the ALS website and donate. It's like the iPhone of challenges--it couldn't be easier.

3. Compressed time period to complete challenge

The directive is clear--if you are challenged, you have 24 hours to accept and complete it. This is a key reason this spread so quickly, as a reasonable sense of urgency is created for those who have been publicly called out to participate. And we all know you definitely don't want to risk looking bad in front of the Facebook set.

4. Perfect time of year

It's summer, you are outside a lot, and it's hot. Who doesn't want an excuse to cool off or publicly douse their kids with ice water? Late July and early August also tends to be vacation time for people, so it's easier for even the busiest people to justify making themselves more available to do a stunt like this, particularly with a time limit attached. And at this point in the summer, most people are counting the days until their kids return to school, so this is a good outside, afternoon diversion to keep them occupied.

5. Strong, focused, vocal core base linked to a larger vocal base

You may not realize that this campaign turned from a generic summer charity challenge to an ALS-focused campaign in late July, when members of the Boston College community and Team FrateTrain adopted the practice as a creative way to raise awareness in the Boston area of BC alumnus (and former captain of the baseball team) Pete Frates's battle against the devastating disease. Because these groups overlapped (and also have already become accustomed to mobilizing behind various causes like "Boston Strong"), they created a domino effect that quickly spread throughout New England and led to national exposure. While it may have seemed like a complete stroke of luck, the early involvement of several high-profile sports and entertainment celebrities who were associated with each of these communities and had established social media follower bases, also contributed momentum.

6. Simple, but descriptive hashtags

In today's SEO-driven world, this campaign was able to effectively spread two easy-to-remember hashtags used to categorize the posts: #IceBucketChallenge and #StrikeoutALS. Essentially, these two hashtags alone describe why the campaign exists, and has made it extremely easy for people to search and learn more about the effort, watch videos posted from the challenge, and ensure that others are aware of their participation.

7. The "social currency" element

Once fast-moving campaigns like this start to gain traction and notoriety, frequent users of social media naturally want to get on the bandwagon to show they are part of the crowd. Instead of waiting to get challenged, they may post their own videos proactively. It becomes cool to be involved. In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, some have gone to great lengths not just to participate, but to stand out from the rest of the submissions, creating more buzz--and more interest in getting involved. The downside of these types of viral campaigns is that they tend to go from "white hot" to "ice cold" quicker than you can fill a bucket with a bag of ice.

8. Small expectations from the start

When members of Team FrateTrain issued the Ice Bucket Challenge to their base, they did not set out to make it a huge viral hit, nor did they have a large fundraising goal in mind. They simply wanted to raise awareness about ALS and Pete's fight among as many people as they could. By focusing and executing on that goal alone, the rest happened organically.

Whether you are running a small local restaurant, creating the next world-changing smartphone app, or launching a new product line for your existing business, understanding how to leverage social media effectively to gain awareness and traction for your efforts is crucial. Good marketers already know this, but even the best have a hard time actually getting it right. By incorporating some of lessons we have learned from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and setting reasonable expectations for success, you can give your next social media marketing campaign a better chance to gain traction and provide a boost to your growing business. Consider yourself challenged!

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Aug 13, 2014

DAVID A. FRANKEL

David A. Frankel has over 20 years of executive leadership experience at startups and leading companies in the financial services, data, and technology markets. He is a frequent public speaker, and currently works with entrepreneurs, senior executives, and leaders in private equity and venture capital as managing partner of the executive advisory firm SLINGSTONE Group. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @DavidAFrankel.




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