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Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Proved Such a Runaway Success

Yahoo Tech

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge this past summer. (Getty Images)

In this op-ed for Yahoo Tech, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Catherine Tucker reflects on this summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge craze and explains just what made it such a smashing success.

As social media sensations go, this one had it all: Emotion, social currency, money, and a sense of derring-do. It involved your social network and mine, but also celebrities, professional athletes, and even a former president. It was, on one level, silly and tapped into our deep-seated can’t-look-away tendencies, but it was also on a deeper level inspirational and supported a worthy cause.

I am referring, of course, to this summer’s social media phenomenon: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

For the uninitiated, the Ice Bucket Challenge involves dumping a pail of cold water over your head, posting photographic evidence of the pour on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and then challenging friends to do the same within 24 hours or give $100 to A myotrophic l ateral s clerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Many did both. 

As a fundraiser, the Ice Bucket Challenge continues to be, in the words of Forbes magazine, a “philanthropic blockbuster.” Not only has it raised more than $100 million for ALS, the progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, but it has also heightened awareness for a disease that many Americans knew little about.

The challenge has been such a success that every professional fundraiser in America is no doubt thinking: “How can we start our own Ice Bucket Challenge?”

Trying to imitate the Ice Bucket Challenge, though, is a mistake. A winning social media campaign is not about tweaking an existing idea; it’s about coming up with something colossally original. And a bucket-esque challenge that requires participants to do something distasteful but that won’t kill them — drinking a bottle of vinegar water, say — isn’t going to cut it. Perhaps the first onslaught of copycats might be able to piggyback on the idea — the Rice Bucket Challenge, where participants donate a bucket of rice to someone in need and click a picture of it to share online, got some brief attention in India because of its cutesy name — but on the whole, marketing mimicry is doomed for failure.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was such a runaway success because it combined a mixture of authenticity, vanity, and a brilliant made-to-go-viral design.

The challenge was not something that a professional fundraiser came up with; rather, it was a grass-roots campaign. It felt genuine. (While the origins of the challenge are somewhat hazy, the person most often credited with inspiring it is Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago.) This is important not just for its credibility but because the entire idea was so outlandish that it was unlikely to have originated in a typical marketing department, where it would have probably been rejected as a terrible idea that would never work.

Another reason for its popularity was that it gave people an excuse to flaunt pictures or videos of themselves online for the sake of a good cause. The challenge also gave people an opportunity to prove they were part of an in crowd, joining the likes of Ben Affleck, Britney Spears, George W. Bush, LeBron James, and Bill Gates.

Finally, the Ice Bucket Challenge was, by nature, a viral campaign. Participants are obligated to nominate other people to also take part. The fact that these nominations were made via social media ensured that not only their Facebook friends and Twitter followers saw their picture, but also that their social network’s social network saw it, as well. (For the record: I did not participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, although many esteemed friends and colleagues did.)

The challenge has also had its fair share of critics. Some have questioned how many who doused themselves really donated money or took time to learn about ALS. Others claim the campaign obscured the needs of other worthy causes and that all those buckets were a big waste of water. But these criticisms are beside the point. The Ice Bucket Challenge inspired hundreds of thousands of people to give to charity and raised a record amount of money for ALS research.

The marketing lesson from the Ice Bucket Challenge is trickier to uncover. Social media campaigns are very difficult to pull off, and nonprofits have struggled, with few exceptions, with raising significant money through social media. One reason is that it’s a long, problematic step between merely liking a cause on Facebook and actually giving money to it, and social media websites are not configured to allow nonprofits to make that step. So what works is the outrageously different and untested, and that does not tend to arise out of the patient, conscious efforts of fundraising professionals to exploit the interest people have shown in their cause on social media.

Catherine Tucker is the Mark Hyman Jr. Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.