How to Make Your Campaign Go Viral

Scott ALSBy now, you’ve seen the videos – thousands of them – of people dumping buckets of water on their heads in the name of charity. It’s the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a phenomenon that’s swept across the U.S. and U.K. within just a few weeks to become one of the biggest internet trends of the year. Odds are, you’ve either participated in it yourself, or know someone who has.

 For the uninitiated, here’s how it works. Someone is challenged to either donate $100 to the ALS Association or make a smaller donation AND film themselves pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads. They post the video to their facebook or other social media site and extend the challenge to two or three friends who then have 24 hours to accept the challenge themselves. And the story repeats itself. Again, and again, and again.

The first challenge was issued in July and videos of people shrieking at the cold-water shock quickly went viral. The challenge has been accepted by celebrities, children, and teams – many devising extremely creative ways to douse themselves. It’s also drawn its share of detractors and copycats.

Regardless of what you think of the idea, there’s no doubt the Ice Bucket Challenge has been successful. Public understanding of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has skyrocketed. Donations to ALS research have also seen exponential growth. The ALS Association reports that donations since July 29th have exceeded $100 million. By comparison, the organization takes in less than $20 million during a typical year.

So, what’s the scoop? Why have so many people been moved to pick up a bucket when other well-intentioned ideas have fallen flat? What can we learn from the ALS movement?

While there’s a lot to learn from this example, I think there are three characteristics of the Ice Bucket Challenge that contribute to its overwhelming success.

  1. It’s easy to participate. The Ice Bucket Challenge is easy to take part in. All you need is a bucket of water, a small donation, and your smart phone. It can be completed anywhere and requires no forms, registration, or waiting period. People are immediately turned off by great ideas that require huge investments of time, effort or money. But keep the barrier to entry low, and participation levels go up significantly.
  2. It’s fun. Admit it, it’s a lot of fun to see your friends and favorite celebrities screaming in shock as the cold water hits them. Plus there’s a sense of community that occurs by joining the ranks of those who’ve accepted the challenge and a sense of pride at being part of a movement supporting a worthy cause. If you can make your campaign fun, you gain people’s attention.
  3. It’s personal. A key part of the Ice Bucket Challenge involves issuing a challenge to two or three friends. It’s hard to resist a personal invitation from someone you know. This aspect of the challenge is what caused it to go viral. Each participant becomes part of the communication strategy and keeps the challenge alive. The camaraderie between friends is strengthened by shared participation in an event, and no one wants to let down a friend. So look for ways to get people not only participating, but actively promoting your event to their network.

Think about your next customer campaign, employee program, or community event. How can you incorporate these elements to give it some extra oomph?


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