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What the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Can Teach Us About Content Marketing

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Some 60% of B2C marketers plan to increase their content marketing budget this year according to a study by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. But it's not enough to just create content anymore; success lies in creating content that engages your audience and motivates them to spread the word.

So the search is on for a "formula" that gets people sharing, and any brand or cause that succeeds is worth learning from.

The most recent success story: the ALS ice bucket challenge. If you somehow haven't seen it on your Facebook feed (or on Good Morning America or the Today show), here's how the challenge works: People post videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice water over their heads to raise awareness and donations for ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease); they then challenge friends to dump water on themselves or donate $100 to the cause.

When I first heard of the campaign, I thought it was silly at best and inappropriate at worst. My grandfather died of ALS four years ago, and as a self-described cynic I was quick to write the challenge off. But after doing some research, and learning that the ALS Association collected $5.7 million in donations within two weeks (almost five times the amount earned during the same timeframe last year), I was ready to give it a second chance.

The truth is, the campaign is raising awareness and funds to fight a debilitating disease. It's also a great case study for content marketers looking to capture the attention of their audiences.

Three Lessons (or Reminders)

Here are three things this particular phenomenon can teach us (or at least remind us) about content marketing.

1. It's unique, simple, and just crazy enough

Who doesn't want to see their friends getting "tortured?" The ALS #icebucketchallenge feels like a good-natured clip from America's Funniest Home Videos or a prank pulled on YouTube. But it's done with the user's consent, it is extremely entertaining to watch, and it has a great follow-up message.

Along with its lightheartedness, the #icebucketchallenge is also very simple. Bucket, ice, hashtag, post. No entering, no email, no external sites. Low commitment is extremely important if you're trying to get a large number of people involved.

It's also a new way of "going viral." Instead of one piece of great content being shared over and over, each video is viral within that participant's immediate circle, and the videos are linked by a simple, memorable hashtag. Instead of becoming a meme, it began as one.

And who had this brilliant idea in the first place? The originator of the campaign wasn't some evil marketing consultant on behalf of the ALS Association. It was started by Peter Frates, a former Boston College baseball player living with ALS.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this ice storm is that people like to interact with people—not organizations.

2. It hits both ends of the sad-to-happy emotional spectrum

Although ALS is nothing to laugh about, it's hard getting people to share content when the air of a campaign is all doom and gloom. People want to be a positive force in their community, and they like to have fun.

Some people are comparing the challenge to a modern-day bake sale. Do cookies and brownies have anything to do with refurbishing your local church or raising money for a school baseball team? Not really, but they get people excited to help out.

Many of us revert to pulling on consumer heartstrings for emotional messages, and it usually works (see the Dove real beauty campaign or those heart-crushing commercials with Sarah McLachlan). The ALS #icebucketchallenge is a refreshing (no pun intended) reminder that people are just as likely to act when you make them laugh.

And, in the end, when you're freezing cold and drenching wet, you are still left with the warm feeling that you made a difference. Not a bad emotional mix for a 10-second video.

3. The call to action is fun and free

Although donations are encouraged, there is no part of this campaign that demands users buy or give up personal information to participate. The only thing it stipulates is "pour water over your head or donate."

Theoretically, that approach could have backfired tremendously if everyone participated but no one donated. However, it seems "just raising awareness" can be enough: The ALS Association reports a 1,000% spike in donations to the national office in the 10-day period ended Thursday, August 7—up from $14,500 (during the equivalent period a year earlier) to $160,000. 

A Final Lesson

Unfortunately, as hard as we might try, the vast majority of our content will never approach virality. Only 6% of Upworthy posts have reached 100,000 views, and only 0.42% have surpassed 1 million, according to the viral content experts at Upworthy.

Virality is hard. But content marketers can look to examples like the ALS challenge to create and promote content that their audience will appreciate.

My guess is that the ALS #icebucketchallenge is going to spawn many knockoffs this year. But—and you heard it here first—they will never catch on like this one did. How many of us are still jealous of the interest garnered by the Dove campaign (and how many failed copycats followed)?

So, the final lesson for marketers is this: The trick isn't to copy or mimic a great campaign; it's to learn from it and incorporate the lessons into future ideas.

The #icebucketchallenge is fun, it's for a good cause, it has perfect timing, it doesn't feel corporate, and it's new. Here's hoping that it and others like it will help us all make better use of those increased content marketing budgets in the coming year.

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Lauren Covello manages content marketing at Ripen eCommerce, a full-service digital agency that specializes in building custom marketing and development solutions for online retailers.

LinkedIn: Lauren Covello

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  • by Scott Paley Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    Exactly right - the point is to learn the underlying principles of *why* this worked so well, not to simply copy what they did.

    I posit that part of why this worked so well is it aligns with basic human psychology (selfishness and self-identity) rather than fighting against it. I wrote down my thoughts on this here -

  • by Geri Seiberling Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    While we all would love to achieve viral status with our marketing, this post from QZ offers a sobering balance. Maybe we aren't really helping with this kind of public participation for non-profits and charities? While I'm not sure that the statistics here in this article are easily proven, and I would like to see the studies more closely, it is still worth considering, before you start something like this, if it IS, actually helping.

  • by Brittany Berger Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    It may have raised a lot of money, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Most people are MUCH more focused on the challenge aspect than the actual cause.

    I'd say at least half of the challenge posts I've seen don't even contain the words "Lou Gehrig's disease" or the acronym "ALS." It's all about the challenge, so they don't even acknowledge why they're doing it.

  • by Ashley Livingston Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    As the author points out, the #icebucketchallenge doesn’t feel corporate—because it’s not. It wasn't the output from a creative brief requesting an agency to develop a viral campaign (which is an impossible task--you don't "create" viral anything). From what I've observed, the ALSA has not swooped in and attempted to take over, but instead has embraced it with appreciation. There are many lessons brands can take away from this about transparency and relinquishing control. Authenticity is the inimitable beauty of viral marketing.

  • by Ann Handley Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    This piece from Slate gives some background and history on the Ice Bucket Challenge -- which, as it turns out, wasn't originally an ALS fundraiser as is being widely reported, but was successfully adopted as such. Link is here:

    Salient point:

    "Matt Lauer’s challenge, along with that of Martha Stewart and many others, predated Frates’ involvement and had nothing to do with ALS. Rather, it came from a dare that was circulating among a group of pro athletes, including golfer Greg Norman and motorcycle racer Jeremy McGrath. Those who declined the ice bath were compelled to give $100 to charity of the challenger’s choice. (Lauer donated to the Hospice of Palm Beach County.)"

    Anyway -- just FYI... kind of puts new perspective on the challenge, in which a pointless meme went into a phenomenal fundraiser.

  • by Scott Paley Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    Ann - ALS certainly had nothing to do with this happening. But as a marketer what's interesting to me is figuring out the attributes that made it work so we can do better with future campaigns. The spectacle of seeing friends have ice dumped on their heads is what makes this fun and interesting for people. Without that, nothing about donating to ALS would stand out above any other worthy charity.

  • by Ann Handley Fri Aug 15, 2014 via web

    Very true, Scott. Agree 100%.

    The spectacle was part of it, yes... especially in the way that many were notably human in their videos.

    Most of the time people present their best selves on Facebook -- almost scrubbed versions of themselves. But in this case, many people on Facebook didn't do that -- rather, they just leaned into this fundraiser wholeheartedly. Because they weren't just challenged to participate -- they were also moved to do so.

    I consider that a win on both a marketing *and* a very human level.

  • by AESGray Sat Aug 16, 2014 via mobile

    It's made for an interesting case study, but I question whether it can be replicated fully, unless we can boil it down to some real basics, much as how you've covered it here. I wrote similar post recently about the elements that make it successful - and touch on the Slate piece as well. There is a follow up piece in the works about the dilution of the message, despite the rate of giving, and thoughts on striking a balance.

  • by Suzanne E Sat Aug 16, 2014 via mobile

    Great results for ALS. As Ann H. points out it started as a choose your charity and at one point was specifically for American Cancer Soceity who actually shed a negative light on it--what a missed opportunity for them!

  • by Del Williams Mon Aug 18, 2014 via web

    I think the Ice Bucket challenge worked for a lot of reasons. It was not from an org, but the friends of a guy who has ALS, not him, since he can't move now. Second, as you said, it is simple and can take as little as a minute of getting wet. Third, people of influence (not just fame) got involved and that helped it get traction. Fourth, people have been doing the pour and donating for the most part. For a disease as rare as this, the $15 million they have raised over the last two weeks may offer the path to a cure, since they would normally not have that kind of money coming in. I hope they hired a good accountant. And finally, ALS org has not come in and tried to rev it up. Had they done that, it might have ended quickly. The great part is that ALS just got on the register of people's mind, and that can mean an increase in donations in years to come. And the copycats will go down in flames quickly since THEN people would view it as a stunt instead of this organic viral happening.

  • by MarleyWrites Wed Aug 20, 2014 via web

    Very well written article, and I completely agree with what Del Williams wrote in the Comments. I think what's most important about the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it was something that gained traction because a group of friends decided to do this. Social Media allowed for this to grow due to it's inherent 'Six-degrees of separation'. What I learned is that there is as much power in a small group coming together and being passionate about a cause as long as it's fun, quick, and of interest. Like Del Williams stated, the copycats will likely fail.

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