Why Was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Such a Success?

There’s probably a good chance that at some point over the past month you’ve poured a bucket of ice water on your head … and not because of the scorching end-of-summer heat.

A phenomenon hit our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds this summer called the #ALSicebucketchallenge.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the challenge involves filming people getting doused with buckets of ice water, posting it to social media, then nominating others to do the same, or make a donation within 24 hours, all in an effort to raise both awareness and money for ALS.

It was started by the family and friends of former college baseball player, Pete Frates, who, two years ago at the age of 29, was diagnosed with ALS. Throughout August, the #ALSIceBucketChallenge has quite literally “soaked” the nation. Everyone from President George W. Bush to Justin Timberlake has poured a bucket of ice water over his or her head.

As of Monday, Aug. 25, the ALS Association has received $79.7 million in donations, compared to $2.5 million during the same time period last year. These donations have come from both existing donors and 1.7 million new donors.

While many people braved the chill of this challenge, others have called it annoying or have criticized its call-to-action to avoid donating by dumping cold water on your head.

Like it or not. Annoying or not. You have to admit – it’s working. In a summer full of terrible news from Ferguson, Mo., to the Malaysia plane shot out of the sky over Ukraine, we’ve all come together to pour water on each other in the spirit of raising awareness to fight this terrible disease.

As a nonprofit communications professional, I thought the campaign was brilliant and is my new gold standard in how to raise grassroots awareness. Simply put, Pete Frates, you hit a home run.

Before this summer, ALS was a barely-understood, horrible disease with little advocacy or fundraising. The ALS Association didn’t plan this campaign, nor could they have anticipated its success. It happened organically, thanks to a perfect storm of people and events. With a very small investment of time and money, the campaign combined a good cause, celebrity support, social networks and let’s face it – hot summer fun.

Naturally, other nonprofits are looking at its success and wondering, “How do we get in on that?” My advice? Drop the buckets. As “cool” as it was, we’ve all had enough of the ice water.

Instead take a moment to look at what made this challenge a success and how your organization can take those components to make your own viral campaign a success. The #ALSicebucketchallenge worked, in part, because:

  • The content was both digestible and shareable. Most videos were less than a minute and were easy to share, and some were especially creative with their videos.
  • Timeliness. In a true pyramid marketing style, the campaign challenged participants to not only pick three people but also gave them a “24-hour” time cap that added a call to action with a deadline.
  • It was a fun dare. I mean, seriously. This was not your typical nonprofit-sponsored bike/walk/run. It was a unique, simple challenge with a successful ripple effect. Participants could feel like they’ve not only had fun but were daring enough to take part in something with very little actual risk (other than embarrassing yourself on social media). To viewers, the reactions of those doused in cold water were pure entertainment, and incentive to get involved, too.

Despite some backlash and cynicism, anything that gets so many people participating and talking is a great thing. ALS is an awful, debilitating disease. I lost a friend to it this summer. I wish he could have been around to see so many people talking about ALS.

I hope that one day someone else’s life is saved or prolonged thanks to all of those that have braved the chill or donated to this cause.

Ed. Note: Not everyone can afford to donate to charity or wants to be soaked with cold water, so here’s another way you can raise awareness of ALS. This blog post offers a few physical challenges to help you understand what it’s like to live with ALS.


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