3 secrets of #IceBucketChallenge success and how to crush them for your project or charity [TV gig]

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So I was working on a completely separate blog post to this on Friday evening, and I got the call from Sydney’s Channel 7’s Sunrise producer. They wanted a subject matter talking head in Social Media to discuss how the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge got so big, so fast and why other charities are struggling to emulate the success of it.

Here is a video of it ICYMI (with both ends of my discussion shaved off just to annoy you a little). I also manage to say ‘tight little package’ on live television, which is fun:

So I did a bit of research on it all, and uncovered the three biggest reasons the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful, and how the next commercial or charity project will crush their results.

What is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

Pretty much everyone in the world drenched themselves with a bucket, some water and some ice. This thing made some serious progress.


ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease. The ice bucket part of it was inspired by some guy in Boston apparently, and awareness quickly spread after multiple media sources picked up on the story. It’s perhaps social media’s most successful charity awareness and fundraising campaign to date. They’ve raised $115 million in donations to date, and they’re still trickling in today.

The challenge involves:

  1. A rolling video of you performing the challenge
  2. The ice-bucketer verbally accepting the challenge
  3. Proceeding to pour the ice bucket over your head
  4. Nominating at least three others to take the challenge
  5. Posting to social media and sharing it around
  6. If you did the challenge, your donation to ALS was optional
  7. If you rejected the challenge, you were expected to donate to ALS


What the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did right:

There were three elements that made this campaign extraordinarily successful. The formula, executed time and time again by all participants revolved around these three principles:

  • Fun and easy: Inclusionary is the word here. To take part, all you needed was a bucket (which was anything that can hold water), some water and some ice. There was no real room for anyone to make any excuses as to why they couldn’t participate, and for some reason, tipping a bucket of ice water over our heads for charity is stunt-worthy enough for us to generate engagement on social. So we did it.
  • Visual: In a world where social proof is everything, the act of filming oursleves performing such a stunt in the name of charity, and then posting it for the world to see is amost self-congratulatory in nature. Self-promotion is why we the majority use this internet thing to begin with, so anything that’ll help us contribute and amplify our activity is more than welcome.
  • Virally looped referrals: Perhaps the biggest single factor in the nature of the campaign’s growth was the way referrals were made. By nominating at least three others in your video, you were publicly calling out your friends to do the same. This sense of urgency of obligation is hard to ignore when there’s a good chunk of your friendship and professional network expecting you to perform. As the three others performed the task and called on at least three others, this domino effect on growth would single-handedly spiral out of control, to the benefit of the campaign.

How Viral Looping Referral Growth Happens

Criticism of the campaign:

Of course, you’re not going to make it that big, that fast, without some people trying to smear their party-pooping opinions all over your clean campaign.

The biggest criticism was that this campaign encouraged slactivism, whereby one assumed they’re making a difference but they aren’t really contributing much at all. This would relate to the fact you could negate your obligation to donate by performing such a trivial stunt as to film yourself pouring a bucket of ice water on your head. While this is true, many of those participating both donated and performed the stunt, and collectively, all participants brought ALS into the spotlight in quick succession, so most should regard that as a success regardless of how ‘slacktive’ it is.

Great example of empowering slacktivists to actually do something useful. Photo credit Jason Tester Flickr.

There was also the whole ‘wow, what a waste of water’ thing, which, kind of makes sense considering it is a valuable resource and there’s at least a few nations out there that could really do with water as clean the water you just tipped over your head.

Then, there was the actual human risk to tipping ice cold water over your head. At first I was wondering how on earth this could be dangerous, but lo and behold, there have been a number of injuries and at least two deaths (here and here).

Charity Hijacking:

So, given the successes of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, it was no surprise that other charities tried to hijack the momentum of the campaign for their own agenda. Here’s one that involved breast milk. Yes, breast milk.

There’s a reason no one remembers any charity that tried to replicate, almost verbatim, the act of ‘putting something in a bucket and pouring it over your head’ kind of activity. It’s because they weren’t first. Anyone who pours something on their head now is unofficially referring to the original Ice Bucket Challenge, because they came in, stormed the internet, and owned it.

On a commercial level, it’s the very same reason that the Old Spice ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign did so brilliantly (inching on 50 million views) and every other brand that attempted to replicate it failed miserably. Remember this? Remember the brands that tried to hijack by making their own version? Me neither.

Innovate, don’t emulate:

It’s the one simple rule, that’ll see your brand or charity skyrocket in notoriety and start jackpotting. Be creative enough to deliver your message unlike anyone else has before, to build and evangelise what you’re trying to achieve. Mimicry is not a formula, you must be original.

Sure, learn from historical campaigns such as the Ice Bucket Challenge and apply them for your own agenda, which were fundamentally:

  • Make it fun and easy
  • Make it visual
  • Make it easy to refer others to take part in the campaign

However, with these principles in mind, you should be thinking well outside the box. The idea won’t come easy. You’ll be there for hours, days, weeks, even. You’ll be Googling ‘people doing stupid stuff’ and watching countless questionable videos on the ‘wrong end’ of YouTube. You’ll want to give up and revert to a bucket with some nondescript liquid, but don’t.

Brainstorming works
Brainstorming works. Photo credit Jacob Bøtter Flickr.

Take your potential audience on a journey they weren’t expecting, harness their captive attention, and draw others in like a zombie apocalypse. That’s the key to the next big ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ of our time.

~ Tomer Garzberg
Twitter | Instagram

What are your thoughts on the Ice Bucket Challenge? What’s your ideas on what could build the next bigger and better viral campaign? Leave your comments below!