360i News: Ice Bucket Challenge: Can Lightning Strike Again?

November 6, 2015

As reported by The New York Times here:

Ice in a bucket became lightning in a bottle this summer, raising awareness and a record $115 million to combat the rare disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Former President George W. Bush, Taylor Swift, LeBron James, Bill Gates and millions more social media users participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, dumping buckets of ice over their heads to support attempts to find a cure for A.L.S., known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. About 30,000 Americans have A.L.S., which attacks nerve cells and ultimately leads to total paralysis, although the mind remains sharp. Life expectancy is usually about two to five years from diagnosis.

The concept was simple: People made videos of themselves dumping a bucket of ice water on their heads, posted it to Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites, and then challenged friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate money to A.L.S. research and care. (Many people both made a video and donated the money.)

On Facebook alone, more than 17 million Ice Bucket Challenge videos were shared from June 1 to September. More than 440 million people viewed the videos more than 10 billion times, Facebook said.

Since the end of July, donations to the ALS Association, a Washington-based nonprofit, amount to nearly six times the $19.4 million the group raised in all of the year ended Jan. 31, 2013.

“This is an encouraging sign that people have truly embraced the fight against A.L.S. as a cause they want to support,” Barbara Newhouse, chief executive of the ALS Association, said in a statement.

But can charities replicate that success? Social media marketing experts said that would be close to impossible because serendipity played such a large role. Still, that has not stopped experts from studying the phenomenon.

“More than anything else, the reason why this all worked in the end is because people felt like they were doing good, that they were contributing to something,” said Charlene Li, a social media expert and a founder of the Altimeter Group consultancy. “It really was about you, but it had the veneer of being a good citizen.”


Such experts point to a couple of key factors: The stunt was easy and entertaining, especially during the dog days of summer. Peer pressure spurred people to join in.

Star power also propelled the challenge into a global sensation. “It’s not just that celebrities got involved, but they really made it their own,” said Sarah Hofstetter, chief executive of the digital marketing company 360i. “There was creativity here, whether it’s Kermit the Frog, Bill Gates or Sarah Palin — they all were both relatable and akin to their personality.”

The ALS Association didn’t even start the campaign. A spokeswoman said that if the group had tried to create it itself, it probably would not have been nearly as successful. The charity stumbled onto success by jumping on a small campaign that already had taken root.

The Ice Bucket Challenge had been percolating on the Internet for several weeks before it was linked to A.L.S., with participants challenged to donate to a charity of their choosing. In mid-July, for example, the golfer Greg Norman challenged Matt Lauer, host of “Today” on NBC. Mr. Lauer performed the stunt on the show, promised to donate money to the Hospice of Palm Beach County and challenged Brian Williams, Martha Stewart and Howard Stern.

A couple of weeks later, Pete Frates, a former college baseball player at Boston College, learned about the challenge from his friend Pat Quinn. Mr. Frates and Mr. Quinn have A.L.S. and wanted to turn the stunt into a fund-raiser for the disease.

Mr. Frates posted a video of himself bouncing his head to “Ice Ice Baby,” the 1989 rap song by Vanilla Ice, and challenged some friends. Soon, the Ice Bucket Challenge spread through Boston circles.

By August, a cascade of politicians, pop stars, actors, athletes, chief executives and other celebrities were taking part. “Did we ever imagine the level of awareness or the money that is coming in? In our dreams we did,” Nancy Frates, Mr. Frates’s mother, said in an interview this summer.

The challenge soon became a lightning rod for criticism. Some called it “slacktivism,” where people click and post items online in the name of a charity or a social cause without taking action. Others said it did little to raise awareness about the disease or took issue with the premise that participants need not donate money if they dumped a bucket of ice on their heads. They said it should be the reverse: People who donate should dump buckets on the heads of those who do not.

Other critics said that among celebrities it turned into a popularity contest that had little to do with the charity or the disease. In response to the criticism, the ALS Association highlighted its record level of donations, saying the challenge brought in 2.5 million new donors. Some social media experts pointed out that the group could have raised even more money by adding a button at the end of the videos that would allow people to donate with a click.

Some A.L.S. groups have discussed making the Ice Bucket Challenge an annual event. And it didn’t take long for some causes to try to piggyback on the trend, adding their own twists but also flirting with trend fatigue. None of the imitators have met with such success.

There was the “Lather Against Ebola Challenge,” which encouraged people in Ivory Coast to wash their hands with videos showing people dumping soapy water over their heads. The “Rice Bucket Challenge” in India skipped dumping rice while instead urging people to give a bucket of rice or donate to meals for children.

College students started a “Pay My Tuition” challenge on Twitter, asking celebrities to help pay their tuition. In response, Blackboard, the education technology company, started an essay contest. The winners won scholarships from Blackboard. But the Ice Bucket Challenge will be hard to beat, said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research. “Once an idea infects us, we build up antibodies to resist similar ideas again,” he said.

One question remaining is whether such viral donations represent a net increase in contributions to charities or a shift in dollars from other causes. But while the challenge has faded from the spotlight, some groups are trying to keep the light shining.

Before Game 2 of the World Series last month, Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner, presented a trophy to the Frates family and dedicated the game to Mr. Frates and others fighting the disease.

The silver bucket read: “Not since the legendary Lou Gehrig has anyone inspired a nation to take up the fight against A.L.S. as you have. Major League Baseball extends its deepest gratitude for all you have done to bring awareness to this important cause.”