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5 Marketing Lessons we Learned from the Ice Bucket Challenge

August 26, 2014 | Nikki Bisel

Ice Bucket Challenge Jon Ward
Photo credit: Courtney Ward

The ALS ice bucket challenge has become one of the biggest cause marketing campaigns of all time. As of this writing, over 2.4 million videos have been uploaded online, and more than $50 million in donations has been raised, according to Time. To compare, they raised $2.9 million last year during the same period! What can we learn from this viral sensation? Despite a summer full of violent stories dominating headlines nationally and globally, a positive social media campaign can still make waves and bring people together if done right.
Here are the 5 biggest marketing lessons the ice bucket challenge taught us:
1. Word of mouth marketing is still one of the best ways to promote your cause
The origins of the ice bucket challenge are unclear (an article from Slate delves into the mystery of who started it) but there is one person who helped to bring it mainstream: Pete Frates. Frates is a former baseball player from Boston College with ALS. On July 31st this year, he asked some friends as well as celebrity athletes like Tom Brady to take the challenge in order to "strike out ALS", in his words. From there, it spread across the internet, and eventually to superstars such as Oprah and Bill Gates.
As small business marketers, we can take this opportunity to see that the campaign's success was based around two things: authenticity and word of mouth marketing. It was authentic because it was based around Frate's desire to raise awareness for ALS, and wildly successful because Frates was able to reach out to enough people and convince them to take the challenge. Thus, if your small business is creating a campaign based around social, every little bit helps. In addition to customers, ask your employees and family members to help raise awareness—the power of word of mouth marketing is never to be underestimated!
2. Timing is everything
What better time of year to dump ice cold water on your head than in the summer? The ALS challenge picked up traction thanks to the fact that it was very family friendly: kids are on summer break, parents may be on vacation themselves, and there was plenty of daylight hours to complete the challenge after a day of work. Would something like this be as successful if it were done in the winter? Possibly, but not as likely.
3. Simplicity attracts more fans
Too often, companies create social campaigns that sound like a fun idea, but end up alienating their fanbase because of the barrier to entry. You don't want to ask your potential customers for the equivalent of an essay just to take part in a promotion. Whatever your cause or contest is, keep the rules or entry simple, and you'll see more engagement. What was the ice bucket challenge?
—Pledge to make a donation to the ALS Association ($10 if you take the challenge, $100 if you don't)
—Videotape yourself dumping a bucket of ice cold water on your head
—Nominate friends to take the challenge
4. Do something a little different
The idea of a marketing campaign where you dump ice cold water on your head seems like a hard sell, right? It sounds like something we would have expected to see on a kid's game show! The reason it works though, is because it has just the right amount of social stigma. By nominating your friends, you're saying, "Hey, I did this...can you?"
The element of self pride and gratification is what works. It is silly enough to get people to want to do it themselves after being challenged by friends, but not too crazy where they might be more hesitant to try.
5. Jumping on the bandwagon isn't always a bad thing
Your small business may not have the next ice bucket challenge idea that sweeps the nation by storm. Can you still get positive exposure to your company on social media outlets by taking part in one yourself? Yes! Just ask the Energizer Bunny or the Carfax Car Fox.
Some have argued that brands need to be careful about taking part in these viral stunts, because it merely lends to narcissism. This in itself is true, but the fact that the ice bucket challenge revolves around a charitable campaign is what gives your small business a chance to show some personality while simultaneously supporting a good cause.
Have you learned any other marketing lessons from the ice bucket challenge? Leave a comment on Facebook or send us a tweet with your thoughts!

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