5 Things Marketers Can Learn from the #IceBucketChallenge

By now you can’t go anywhere without hearing something about the #IceBucketChallenge – it’s on the TV, it’s in newspapers, and it’s definitely on your Facebook and Instagram news feeds. Everyone, from athletes and celebs, to politicians and executives are taking part in the mega-viral social media phenomenon to help bring awareness to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Maybe even you have participated yourself, heck I did.

The idea of challenging someone in the name of a cause is not new or innovative. In High School, I shaved my head to raise money for cancer; that was over ten years ago!  So what was it about this campaign that is making it so effective? Why has dumping a bucket of ice cold water over your head in an effort to raise money been so successful? According to a press release put out by the ALS Association, the campaign has tripled the amount of donations they received last year during this time period. So that leaves an important question unanswered, what can we, as marketers learn from this thriving piece of content?

Drawing of a bucket of water set on a blue background with text that reads: 5 Things Marketers Can Learn from the IceBucketChallenge

Simple Contest = Successful Campaign

It’s pretty clear that the ALS foundation didn’t hire a corporate lawyer to write the rules for the challenge – in fact, ALS didn’t even come up with the challenge at all. The contest’s simple rules were made up by an ordinary guy and they don’t require you to have PHD or a Masters  in order to participate. To participate, it only requires a few everyday things; a container, ice, some friends on Facebook and a couple of hashtags – very straight forward. The contest didn’t require fan-gating, you didn’t have to include your email to enter, and you certainly weren’t asked by anyone for access to any of your information from your phone.

Don’t Target an Audience, Target Everybody

As marketers we know the importance of target audience and core demographics. However, sometimes super-focused strategies get so granular with targeting that we miss  out on a a larger opportunity. The beauty of this campaign is that the target audience is anyone with a smartphone and a social media account–which is just about everyone these days.  Outside of the cost of ice, a small donation (your choice), and a little bit of humiliation – anyone can get involved, which again makes it pretty much a no-brainer for anyone.

Timing Will Always be Everything

Ask yourself, would the #IceBucketChallenge have been as successful if it kicked off in January or February? Probably not. There are no coincidences that this kicked off mid-summer. The late July and August months were the perfect temperature (pun intended) for a campaign like this to spread. I mean who doesn’t want an excuse to cool off during the Summer. Guess what else happens during the Summer months, kids are off from school. And guess who goes on Facebook/Instagram? Kids! We’ve talked about the impact of seasonal changes on PPC advertisting – and now we have proof that timing and seasonality can have an influence on viral content as well.

A stack of melting ice cubes set on a blue background

Everybody Needs a Little Buy-In

As fast-moving campaigns like this start to gain traction and notoriety, users of social media naturally want to jump on the bandwagon to be part of the crowd.  In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, like ‘The Harlem Shake’, users are going 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. From helicopter glacial water-droppers and late night TV hosts, to politicians and entire sports-teams, everyone’s getting in on the game of one –upmanship for a good cause.

When in doubt, #Hashtag it Out

In today’s SEO-Social driven world, this campaign was marked by two real simple hashtags to categorize the posts: #IceBucketChallenge and #StrikeoutALS. Without even knowing what the campaign was about, these two simple hashtags alone describe why it exists, simplifying it 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.

Just The Facts: The volume of tweets that include the #icebucketchallenge hashtag has surged over the past in the beginning of August peaking at 90,000 before tapering off:

Graph showing the #IceBucketChallenge hashtag from 7/15/14 - 8/13/14 from Digiday

Image Courtesy of Digiday

Learning from “Organic” Viral

Whether you are running a promotion for a small local restaurant, a giveaway for a large real estate company or creating awareness around the next life-changing app, learning to leverage social media effectively to gain awareness and traction for your efforts is crucial (but as good marketers we already know this, right?). Even the best marketers in the world have a tough time actually getting it right. By incorporating some of these lessons from #IceBucketChallenge, your next social media marketing campaign may have a better chance to gain traction and provide a boost to your grow your business. Now it’s on you to accept the challenge.

What have you learned from the #IceBucketChallenge? We would love for you to share your ideas in the comment section below.

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3 comments on “5 Things Marketers Can Learn from the #IceBucketChallenge

Michelle Stinson Ross

Don’t forget the huge entertainment value of watching the reactions to the shock of the cold water dump :)


Pedro Arnaut

Good point. My only doubt is on the “target everyone” idea. Everyone? Targets are needed.