Unless you’ve been living under a rock – in a place far, far away – you cannot possibly have missed the viral phenomenon that has been the #ALSIceBucketChallenge. In 28 days between July and August of this year, the campaign is reported to have raised $85 million for the ALS charity. YouTube has cited about 2,330,000 videos related to the Ice Bucket Challenge, and between June 1 and August 17, more than 28 million people had joined the Ice Bucket Challenge conversation on Facebook, including posting, commenting, or liking a challenge post on about 2.4 million videos posted on Facebook. A quick Instagram search reveals almost 1.5 million posts on the challenge on that social network.
And so now, as the viral storm has peaked, and new posts are starting to wane, the analysis begins. There have been “naysayers,” from those that believe it has only attracted “slactivists” that have detracted from the serious nature of the disease, through to serious editorials referring to it as a “middle class wet T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists” and doctors warning that ice water could be dangerous to your health.
But regardless of position, the campaign exhibited the kind of global virality that brand marketers can only dream of.
It’s useful to look purely at the mechanics of the campaign, to see what brands might be able to learn to “grease the skids” of a viral social campaign. Together, or separately, these mechanics will not guarantee viral success. But without them, chances of viral success will lessen.
1. Be Social Platform Agnostic
Part of the success of the ALS challenge is that it did not dictate the platform for participation. So long as the platform accommodated video, and their friend network, the participant could join in. Naturally, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg posted their videos on Facebook. But others turned to Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Vimeo, and YouTube — wherever they felt most at home.
Brand Lesson: When asking for fans to submit content (photos, videos, stories) to a campaign, wherever possible, allow audiences to participate on the platform they prefer. This always raises the challenge of bringing together content from disparate social sources – but social monitoring tools today are well up to the task of doing that.
2. Leverage the Social Network Effect – by Facilitating the Involvement of Friends
A fundamental part of the ALS challenge was the shout-out, which usually included @tagging of friends to participate in the challenge, too.
Brand Lesson: It’s great when you get an audience member to participate. It’s even better when participants invite their friends on your behalf. From buying movie tickets and inviting friends to the event through social, to sharing coupons with friends socially after purchasing a product, brands are advised to encourage a customer’s social connections to bring more people into the fold. An invitation from a friend is infinitely preferable to an invitation from a brand.
3. Make It Meaningful, but Make It Fun
In the relatively early days of brand social (2009), my company Friend2Friend built a social app for a major charitable foundation that asked participants to share their personal stories about living with Parkinson’s. We learned early on that people were more guarded with sharing something quite so personal to their lives on social platforms. What the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did was make the delivery of the message something participants were willing to do on social – the seriousness was optional. In their social spaces, people like to show their involvement in a meaningful event, but really they want to share something with their friends that will encourage positive social interaction.
Brand Lesson: Social audiences want acknowledgement from their social network of acquaintances about something that reflects well on themselves in their precious social space. Make it meaningful, but keep it light…and make it fun.
4. Make It Clearly Actionable
The Ice Bucket Challenge had a specific call to action: donate $10. And if you were challenged, and didn’t pour water over your head, donate $100. The videos made it absolutely transparent and clear what the participant was doing, and for whom, as well as the call to action.
Compare this to the #bringbackourgirls campaign, an equally worthy cause designed to draw attention to the plight of girls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Many people, including celebrities right up to Michelle Obama, posted photos of themselves with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. But there was a problem of “now what?” As participants, we couldn’t donate somewhere or do something, or call out someone else to do something.
Brand Lesson: Give social audiences a clear and sound call to action – go somewhere, and do something. Make that call to action simple and honest.
5. Give the Campaign Time to Catch Fire
The Ice Bucket Challenge didn’t happen overnight. The challenge started early in 2014, with a variety of celebrities, such as Matt Lauer, dumping water on themselves for other charitable causes. The connection to ALS didn’t come from ALS charity itself. It is believed to have started when Pete Frates, a former Boston College basketball player who himself has ALS, and posted a video to Facebook on July 31 and the campaign grew from there, with social fanning the flames. People saw other people doing it, and they jumped on the bandwagon.
Compare this to the “Cover the Night” campaign of April 2012, promoted to raise awareness about efforts to capture and bring to trial notorious criminal Joseph Kony. Activists were encouraged to put up posters on one night – April 20, 2012. But support was far less than hoped or expected – there was no time to catch fire, see others doing it, and do it yourself. (In addition – related to number three above – there was a lack of transparency in the Kony2012 campaign. It wasn’t quite clear who was organizing the campaign, and for what purposes.)
Brand Lesson: Figure out how to walk the line between too short, and too long. Too short, and the viral flames don’t have a chance to catch light. Too long, and audiences become bored and move on to the next big thing and a brand risks social fatigue. Fans need to be given time to see others participating, and then join themselves.
6. Involve Influencers and Celebrities If You Can
The Ice Bucket Challenge started with local celebrity athletes in Boston. Gradually, bigger and bigger fish joined in until by some accounts hundreds of political figures, notable actors, athletes, and musicians joined in – a hugely important kick because every one of them has large social audiences who look to them for guidance.
Brand Lesson: If you have audience members who are themselves influencers, incent and encourage them to increase your reach (and brand megaphone). There are many good examples of socially savvy brands doing this – such as SmartWool with their “SmartWool Fan Field Testers.” The brand picks customers that post about their brand with the #SmartWool hashtag, and invites those fans to a Field Tester group, with special access to new products and surveys.
There are no magic formulas to viral success. But there are mechanics that will help. Brands that think through how to navigate both the strong and the weak ties in social networks to pass along a campaign theme will increase their likelihood of success.
So what makes content go viral? And what makes people participate in these phenomena?
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