3 Marketing Lessons Nonprofits Can Learn From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

by Greg DePersio

2 min read

Though about a million internet fads have since come and gone, the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is hard to forget. The premise was simple: If you got called out on social media to participate, you had three days to either post a video dumping a bucket of ice water over your head or donate $100 to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research. Those who chose the ice bucket option – which was almost everyone – were also encouraged to make a small donation. Because each video ended with calling out three additional people, the challenge spread like an inferno through the internet. Even celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Taylor Swift, and former U.S. President George W. Bush participated. The Ice Bucket Challenge accomplished more than clogging up news feeds with increasingly over-the-top videos of people getting doused. ALS Canada reported a windfall in excess of $17 million, and the challenge was credited with funding medical breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of the disease. It also offered nonprofits some valuable marketing lessons.

Make It Fun

Very few people participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge because of a deep, abiding concern for those suffering from ALS. Many participants likely had no clue what ALS is and never bothered to look it up. To them, the challenge was simply a fun way to express themselves on social media and call out their buddies for some good-natured embarrassment. Even those who didn’t donate or educate themselves on the cause contributed to its end result by sharing the challenge with friends and furthering its viral surge. Imagine if rather than a fun viral challenge those people had been sent technical literature about ALS along with a call to donate. Probably only a tiny fraction would have forwarded it on, and it certainly wouldn’t have gone viral. The lesson here is to make it fun. People will participate simply because it’s entertaining, and by doing so they’ll further your cause – even if they’re doing it unwittingly.

Appeal to Vanity

Social media is a bottomless well of vanity and narcissism. Tap into that well and channel it into something good. One of the reasons why the Ice Bucket Challenge worked is because it let people show off and be the star of the show. When brainstorming marketing campaigns for your nonprofit, think of ideas that appeal to the need people have, particularly on social media, to be the center of attention. Invite participants to compose and perform rap songs about your cause. Hold a funniest Snapchat story competition. The possibilities are endless.

Educate People

Perhaps the only area where the Ice Bucket Challenge fell short was its ability to educate people on the importance of ALS research and keep them dedicated to the cause after the passing of the internet fad. If you can find a way to combine a fun, viral campaign that appeals to people’s vanity while also imparting serious lessons about why your cause is so important, you can enjoy the short-term windfall and higher levels of engagement with your mission over the long term. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a memorable internet fad, and one of the few that actually resulted in demonstrable good to society. By following the challenge’s blueprints, your nonprofit can launch a successful viral marketing campaign of its own.

References & Resources

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