Cause Marketing on Ice

The other day while sitting on the deck, we heard a great splashing sound from across the way. We looked over to see a neighbor pouring a huge bucket of ice-water over his head while his girlfriend recorded the chilly event on her smartphone. It took me a second to grasp what was happening, but I quickly realized that he was not crazy and not trying to cool himself off from the heat of a Chicago August. The guy was raising money for a charity which he may or may not even feel a particular affinity for.

Right now, today, appearing in virtually every corner of the the internet you can be find my neighbor’s video along with thousands of others and witness one of the most successful, most impressive viral media campaigns of all time. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has, um, caught fire and spread globally to build awareness and raise over $7 million in donations for the ALS Association. It’s pretty simple what this charity has done: they have leveraged their community to invite others to donate a small amount of money to the organization. But not just donate – they are using social media to put  people on the spot in a fun (and funny) way and shame them into a contribution. Here’s how it works: an ALS supporter is encouraged to pour a bucket of ice water over their head, have a friend take a video of the chilly event, and then post the video online and, in the video, “nominate”  friends and family (by name) to do the same thing within the next 24 hours or else donate $100 to the ALS charity.


The ALS Association has been around for almost 30 years, and its mission is fight the disease know as Lou Gehrig’s. They provide funding for research as well as care and support for people suffering from the illness and lobby governments on policy and funding issues. The organization builds awareness through events and outreach – historically their most popular fundraising effort has been their annual Walk to Defeat ALS , which since 2002 has raised almost $200 million in donations. While successful by any measure, the Walk still presents logistical hurdles for both the organization and the participants.  In contrast, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a low-cost, light-touch, ongoing event that works to build awareness and create involvement with little or no oversight or management. It is the perfect fundraiser in that overhead in terms of cash requirements and staff capacity is reduced very close to zero.

Why does it work on its own? The videos are hysterical, the pressure tactic effective, and the results have been formidable. Thousands of average people as well as dozens of celebrities have stood up to make their own videos and post them online while coercing donations from family, friends, and complete strangers. Interestingly, the participants tend to donate whether they rise to the challenge or not.

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Why has this particular undertaking been so wildly successful? While nobody can predict whether an online social effort will go viral, the ALS Challenge was well-positioned for success from the start; many of the critical elements of a successful viral undertaking are all present: simplicity, engagement, entertainment, scalability and ease of transfer, excitement, and focus. First, by making it super-easy for people to participate in the Challenge and by baking in social pressure on top of that, the organizers set themselves up to scale and to do so rapidly. Next, by encouraging (actually, requiring) participants to create content that was inherently entertaining they were able to attract celebrities to do the same at little or no cost. And once people like Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, and Mark Zuckerberg started creating and posting their own ice-bucket videos, the writing was on the wall and it was a matter of internet-time before it exploded.

Marketers can learn a great deal from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and from the ALS Association; keep it simple, motivate others to take up the cause, have fun and be willing to laugh at yourself, and leverage the network effect to spread the message far, wide, and fast. Congratulations to the ALSA for showing us the way!

Photo: Marie Jades

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