The Ice Bucket Challenge: A Lesson in Going Viral

What makes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge so popular? We discuss the 6 components of creating a truly viral phenomenon.
August 25, 2014

A single graph on Google Trends tells us how a challenge for charity took the Internet by storm over the past month.

Before this August, the term ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was relatively obscure, with much of the public unaware of the condition (especially in younger generations). Today, ALS is at the center of pop culture.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been one of the hottest topics on the Internet over the past month, with videos of all sorts of people hoisting buckets of ice water over their heads and dousing themselves in the name of charity. A quick check-in of Facebook or Twitter and you’ll find celebrities, politicians, athletes, grandmas and children all taking the challenge.

The challenge has also raised jaw-dropping amounts of money in a short period of time for ALS research. It’s reported that the ALS Foundation raised $10.3 million in a single day, thanks to the popularity of the challenge.

So how does something so simple become something so viral and raise awareness and funds?

1. A low barrier of entry. What do you need to make a challenge? A bucket, ice, water, a smartphone to capture the video, and two minutes of your time.

Too often attempts at virality fail because they’re too complicated or too expensive. The goal is to get as many people as possible involved, so barrier of entry to participate has to be low.

2. A touch of urgency. According to the rules of the Challenge, you have 24 hours to accept the challenge, or you “have” to pay the ALS Foundation $100. Putting a limited window of time ensures that people won’t put off the challenge.

3. Built in viral mechanism. The ALS Challenge is a bit different than most viral campaigns, because you’re publicly challenging three other friends to participate. Also, it’s not an invitation; it’s a dare. There’s a lot more energy behind someone publicly saying “I dare you!” instead of “Try this!”

4. ALS used a simple, common framework that can be made unique. There’s a format that must be followed in the Challenge: You take ice water and dump it on your head, and call out three other people to take the challenge. Simple. Even small children are doing their own challenges.

What makes a simple framework so effective is because anybody can put ice and water in a bucket and dump it on his or her head. Yet the simplicity allows for variance, which is what allows people to create interesting Challenges. Not only do different people react differently to the cold water (shrieks, screams, laughter, etc.), but the simplicity of the challenge framework allows people to give different angles to the challenges.

Remember the Harlem Shake meme? It followed the same outline: Take a common framework and let people get creative with the details. And there are plenty of examples of people making really creative ALS Challenges.

For example, look no further than celebrities. Bill Gates built a pulley system. Dave Grohl recreated the iconic scene from Carrie with ice water (instead of blood). Jimmy Kimmel turned himself into a human sno-cone, and maybe the most elaborate challenge: a helicopter dumping glacier water on a hockey player.

5. Celebrity involvement. Speaking of celebrities, one reason the Challenge has really picked up steam is the uptick in celebrities participating. It’s harder to find celebrities who haven’t taken the challenge than those who have. Oprah, Bill Gates, Jon Bon Jovi, Robert Downey Jr., Conan O’Brien, even former president George Bush all took the challenge.

When you have a viral mechanism that has celebrities challenging other celebrities, you’re exposing the Challenge to many more eyeballs much faster. It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.

6. Virality breeds more virality. Kickstarter projects raise the most of their funding after their goals have been met. Why? Nobody wants to be left out. Trying something a bit out of your comfort zone is a lot easier when everyone else is already doing it. Social proof is a key component to becoming viral.

Remember, when crafting your own challenge: The ALS Challenge's end goal was not to go viral, though it did that, but to raise awareness and money for ALS. Don't try to go viral—try to fulfill a business goal, and you'll have better success.

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Photo: YouTube