Five Learnings from the #ALSIceBucketChallenge

Two months ago, I discovered my 13- and 11-year-old sons posting videos on Instagram proclaiming that they were “accepting the challenge” – and then someone dumped water on their heads from a roof or tree overhead. I remember wondering what they were doing, though not enough to really ask. All of their friends seemed to be taking part in this mysterious challenge, too, so I chalked it up to “tweens and Instagram.”

Fast forward to about four weeks later. Suddenly, people I knew were acting just like my crazy children, posting videos and getting doused with ice-cold water. I watched about five of them (notably from people in separate social circles) before I started to notice the ALS connection. Since then, as we know, the challenge has really caught on – with celebrities and politicians taking part, as well. I wondered aloud, “Did the ALS Association just think, ‘Let’s take advantage of this?’”

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Photo credit: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

The answer is no. It all began with former Boston College baseball star Peter Frates, who was diagnosed with ALS three years ago. When Frates saw a few kids like mine taking part in the same challenge, he posted on Facebook encouraging people to use their videos to spread awareness of ALS. Then, he challenged some friends to partake in the ice bucket mayhem. His friends took him up on it… and as it turns out, they had some friends of their own. The rest is history – to the tune of over 225,000 new donors and $13 million.

The challenge has been fantastic for the ALS Association, and it’s been fun for the rest of us to watch celebrities and our friends all doing the same things (stars: they’re just like us!). But there have also been some key lessons that can be applied to any brand trying to create a movement beyond just saying, “Buy my product.”

1. The specific cause matters. When the challenge began, many participants were vague in their language, encouraging others to “accept my challenge or donate to a charity.” Many people mentioned a cause close to them in honor of a loved one, but nothing truly caught on until Frates challenged us to recognize his nightmare. It was powerful coming from him. So the ALS part of #ALSIceBucketChallenge really mattered (and it’s also notable that the ALSA didn’t come up with the idea).

2. EVERYONE is on social media, but platform choice is personal. Many people started sharing their ice bucket videos on Facebook. Then Instagram became popular with celebrities. And YouTube was an obvious video-sharing option. But the platform didn’t seem to affect the momentum of the campaign. People engage the way they feel most comfortable – and comfort leads to authentic content.

3. Emotional connection matters. Social media is all about storytelling and sharing. The ice bucket challenge had all of those components and more. First, the story is about what I’m actually doing right now, with this freezing cold water (look at how funny and soaked I am!). Second, the story is about ALS patients. It tugs at two heartstrings and makes people care. And if you care about something, you’ll share it with others. Just by viewing and liking and sharing friends’ videos, you become part of the story. It’s challenging for brands to reproduce such an emotional experience, but to get this kind of traction it is essential.

4. Stunts need time to ramp up. From my kids who undoubtedly found out about this on YouTube, to Peter Frates, to Justin Timberlake, to Lena Dunham, to Oprah – this took six weeks to reach everyone. Most brands don’t employ that level of patience with a program. Instead, they invest in a huge push at launch; and if it doesn’t catch on immediately, it is often deemed a failure. True social movements, however, take some time.

5. When you do the right thing, it resonates. ALS is a horrifying disease. ESPN ran a feature on Peter Frates all weekend (which also was trending on Twitter) to remind us that nothing has changed with the treatment or cure of this disease since Lou Gehrig had it in 1947. The daily struggles of these patients and their families are unimaginable – and giving money to this cause is simply the right thing to do. Let’s not forget about it when we move on to the next social media craze. Donate here.