ice bucket challenge

No sooner had the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started trending than social media marketers were trying to reverse-engineer it to figure out what made it go viral. It’s been dubbed “the viral event of the summer”. I’ve seen several write ups on how brands can apply the lessons of the Ice Bucket Challenge to their marketing and create the “next” ice bucket challenge (but to benefit their brands rather than a worthy cause like ALS).

Samsung even went so far as to literally replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge. But instead of raising awareness of ALS, they hijacked the stunt to show that the Galaxy S5 is waterproof, challenging Apple and Nokia to pour ice water on their phones too.

The marketing response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reminds me of the marketing response to the 2012 Kony video. It’s tempting for marketers to think you could just add a “Kony” or an “Ice Bucket Challenge” to any marketing plan, as if “going viral” were an outdoor media buy or an FSI.

This is a reflection of the one-hit wonder mindset that many brands have with social media. I think that marketers who launch a single campaign with the intention of it “going viral” will be disappointed. The better strategy is to create a consistent stream of content over time, some of which may go viral.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge worked precisely because it wasn’t engineered from the top down by marketers. It worked because the campaign originated with and was run by participants. The job of the ALS Association team was to amplify and fuel it when the magic happened, not to architect it. It also started small, without heavy-handed expectations that it would drive results.

Here’s a cartoon I drew on this topic inspired by the 2012 Kony video.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"Go Viral" cartoon

  1. Jonathan Goodacre says

    Once it has been noticed that something has ‘gone viral’ it’s my impression that it is already too late to try and jump on the bandwagon. It’s sound advice here about doing the consistent work and then if something resonates, engages, tickles then that’s a bonus. On Seth Godin’s blog last week he mentioned that 90% of the people doing the ice bucket challenge were not donating which is sad. Interesting phenomenon though, bringing out lots of creative fun.

  2. @travisaacson says

    I’ve been expecting more awful, attempted hijacks of the ice bucket challenge. Hopefully, marketers are getting smarter than that.

  3. jhsu says

    Tom, another insightful and timely post!
    Samsung S5 UK’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge ad falls under the tactic of “borrowed interest.” In this day and time many marketers often attempt to take advantage of audience’s attention to and interest in current events (e.g., the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the birth of UK’s royal baby back in July 2013, etc.) or elements of the popular culture (e.g., memes like the Gangnam Style, the Harlem Shake, the Grumpy Cat, etc.) and intentionally associate their brands with these trending topics. However, when brands piggyback on the “borrowed interest” in their advertising, their messages often lack relevance or creativity or both. In some cases, such tactics even backfire. For example, American Apparel’s and Gap’s “Hurricane Sandy sale” ads on Twitter were received with complaints and criticisms (Stuart Elliot’s New York Times piece: The lack of product relevance as well as the language they used in the communications led people to question these brands’ motivation as being self-promotion instead of serving consumers’ post-storm needs.
    I agree with Tom’s point about the long-term strategy of building brands’ social media content over time vs. the one-hit wonder mindset. Even when trying to create a one-time buzz, Samsung UK probably would have done better if it actually announced to donate money to support the ALS.

  4. MaryJayne says

    Never underestimate the power of an aligned team driven by a purpose & a passion!

    Engagement doesn’t start externally- it starts internally, with an invested team that shares good ideas and collaboratively breathes them to life.

  5. Jackie B says

    I agree with jhsu. Tom – great perspective. Keep it up! Perhaps the “copycaters” don’t think how poorly it reflects on them.

  6. Allison DeFord says

    Marketing, as you’ve so beautifully noted, is never about a one-hit wonder anything…something goes viral because it MATTERS to people. It can MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Period!

    As always, love your cartoons. Your work matters to me!

  7. Ori Pomerantz says

    For something to go viral, people have to feel strongly enough about it and want to be associated with it. Ice bucket videos say “I’m tough and I care enough to do this for ALS”. Why would people want to say “I have nothing more important to worry about than Puff Crispies”?

    Arguably, making fun online games that involve Puff Crispies might work. People are associated with their success in the game, and the game is related to Puff Crispies. But it would have to be an original game and a fun one – not an easy requirement.

  8. Rajev Shukla says

    Agree with much of what has been already said. I think there are some elements in a message that can create the conditions for virality, but of course nothing ever guarantees it. In this case, it’s easy to do, there is an element of urgency (24 hours), you can introduce a personal quirk in how you do it and thereby make a subtle personal statement (in how you do it), it’s entertaining & fun, it’s positive & uplifting as a message and finally it has a invite element at it’s core that is even more effective because it propogates through a ‘dare’ which is always harder to resist than a “try this” or “i am doing this, so should you” that often happens in ordinary referrals. Celebrity involvement, and in particular the initial concentration among the “tech” crowd, which is by definition more densely networked also helps of course. From a brand perspective however, the key to doing something like this is to focus on what the brand stands for, rather than overtly shill your goods, because people can identify with something larger than themselves, but will easily see through ham handed attempts to enroll them as free spokespersons.

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