Get Chief Innovator
Delivered To Your Inbox.

Social Success


I’m sure you’ve seen it. Hundreds of thousands of posts on social media of friends, family, celebrities and even former US presidents dumping buckets of ice water on their heads. For the past two months, the United States—and the world—has been drenching itself for a good cause.

It began with Pete Frates, a 29-year-old living with ALS, dumping ice water over his head to raise awareness for his disease. A soaking wet Frates challenged his friends to do the same or donate to the ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) association. The hashtag #alsicebucketchallenge was created, along with history—3 million donors and over $100 million in donations. Talk about a social sensation!

The success of the Ice Bucket Challenge certainly falls under the category of being “disruptive.” The campaign has even received criticism for cannibalizing donations that would have gone to other charities. It’s reflective of a new way that nonprofits are engaging with donors and the public. A 2013 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media,” talks about this transition from a pyramid model, where a donor steps up and down the ladder, to more of a vortex: “The vortex can be strengthened—and expanded—by the influence of others, but as it grows it also becomes a greater source of influence on others.”

As we’ve seen with the Ice Bucket Challenge, this model has the potential to reach new markets—in this case more than 2 million new donors—very quickly. One hashtag and its community of followers and influencers was able to increase donations by 800% in less than a month and quickly become the year’s most successful viral marketing campaign.

That brings us to the question: What made this campaign in particular such a social media success? ALS certainly isn’t the first—and wont’ be the last—nonprofit to apply new models of outreach and engagement using social media. But like a soufflé coming out of the oven, most campaigns don’t last for long. So what’s different?

Let’s start with its organic nature. The Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t dreamt up during a marketing meeting at ALS. It was user driven and grew organically by support from the masses. Once the hashtag began to take off, the ALS association took notice. They listened to the voice of their customers (VOC) and began to promote it themselves as well.

Secondly, the #alsicebucketchallenge appeals to the human nature of all challenged to partake. Those involved are able to feel good about their participation in philanthropy. And in a selfie-obsessed age, their philanthropic activity is done in a very public way, gaining admiration from followers.

The fact that this challenge is actually a dare also increases participation. It calls to our egos to protect our reputation by participating in—and continuing—the challenge. This movement has capitalized on the personal aspect of social media to make an impact and the ALS association is smart to continue this, instead of traditional social advertising.

Plus, they made giving fun! The challenge is 30 seconds of entertainment on your newsfeed. Viral marketing, and content marketing in general, should be short, easy to digest and catchy. And video marketing has an extremely high engagement rate. Think about it, YouTube is the second largest search engine and social media site in the world. It’s genius to leverage this type of media to extend the reach of the #alsicebucketchallenge campaign.

When you think about these above success factors, we see how the campaign works with—not against—human nature. This is an important point when it comes to philanthropy and marketing in general, especially when we consider the demographics of those most likely to donate. A study released last year compared the giving habits by generation: Boomers (49 to 57) account for 43 percent of all dollars donated, while Gen Y and X combined account for 32 percent. Boomers also make up the biggest chunk of the population. But they aren’t the biggest participators in social media. According to a Pew Research report, 65 percent of those 50 to 64 use social networking sites, compared to 89 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 82 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds. For nonprofits, reaching the younger generations is key for long-term sustainability.

H3_experienceFor the record, I was challenged but couldn’t seem to find ice water anywhere! Instead, I went to the local ALS chapter and made a donation in person.

With the insane success of this campaign, you can almost hear the majority of nonprofits asking, “What’s our #alsicebucketchallenge hashtag?” While viral marketing campaigns are almost impossible to copy, what we should take away from the challenge is that the way organizations interact with their constitutions is changing. Not every organization will be so lucky; even with all of the ingredients of something going viral, the soufflé doesn’t always rise. The silver lining: While disruptive innovation isn’t predictable, innovation can be. Organizations must run smart, creative efforts that provide them an edge not only with their current donors, but with their spheres of influence, which have the potential to reach millions of donors they didn’t even know about.