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Social Advocacy and Politics: When Viral Happens to You, Take the #IceBucketChallenge

I’ve been challenged. Have you? It is funny how these things work. I am sitting here writing my post on the ALS #IceBucketChallenge when I notice that my friend Beth Becker posted a video on Facebook of her taking the challenge. I watch it. I discover that in the video she challenges me to dump a bucket of ice on my head. Now I have 24 hours to douse myself with an ice bucket or the social media gods will take vengeance upon me (and I can’t afford that!).

Zack Exley famously said that, “If someone walks into your office and tells you they can make your content go viral, throw them out because they have no idea what they are talking about.” Going viral is a phenomenon, not a strategy. You can’t plan to make something go viral. But when something that helps your cause does go viral, jump on it. That is what happened to the ALS Association over the past few weeks.

When I was first approached to write this blog post, ALSA had raised $31.5 million off of this viral phenomenon. I was floored. Now, five days later, I see that ALSA has raised $79.7 million off of the #IceBucketChallenge. Unbelievable!

But what makes this campaign truly unbelievable is that this isn’t an ALSA campaign. It isn’t really a campaign, at all, if you want to be technical. No one planned it.

Apparently, PGA golfer Chris Kennedy dumped a bucket of ice water on his head on July 15 and issued a challenge to his cousin, whose husband has ALS, to do the same. Kennedy’s cousin took the challenge and her daughter filmed it, posted it and off it took. Pretty quickly her whole town took the challenge after seeing the video on Facebook. Even Matt Lauer did in on the Today Show when golfer Greg Norman challenged him.

And it kept going… and going… and going.

As of Monday afternoon, Sysomos MAP reports more than 10.3 million online mentions of the #IceBucketChallenge (or ALSicebucketchallenge):

  • Blogs: 4,947
  • Forums: 3,017
  • Twitter: 9,367,911
  • Digital News: 8,885
  • Facebook(public pages): 984,481
  • YouTube Videos: 117,216

68% of the Twitter mentions were retweets and 51% were tweeted by people with above average authority ratings.

You cannot predict when something will go viral, but you sure better be ready to jump when it does. ALSA did and they’ve leveraged the phenomenon for what will likely end up being more than $100 million dollars.

A few years ago, the Human Rights Campaign experienced something similar with its marriage equality campaign. HRC created a “twibbon” for Facebook and Twitter of a pink equal sign against a red background (its normal logo is a yellow equal sign against a blue background). The twibbon was small part of a larger campaign for marriage equality. But the twibbon went viral. And people started making their on variations of the it.

To its credit, HRC realized the twibbon was going viral and pivoted its campaign to focus on it. Being nimble helped catapult its marriage equality campaign into the mainstream in a fashion far beyond expectations, the results of which can be seen in the steady movement towards marriage equality laws in states across the country. The twibbon wasn’t the only reason for HRC’s success, but the organization’s ability to shift gears mid-campaign allowed it to take full advantage of the trending opportunity.

By contrast, there will always be copycat campaigns trying to replicate campaigns that go viral. Generally, these are doomed to fail. It just works out that way. One example of a campaign trying to copy the #IceBucketChallenge is the #RemainsChallenge (an unfortunate choice of hashtag, which would have been better if it was #RubbleBucketChallenge). In this campaign, a Palestinian journalist dumps a bucket of rubble from a bombed out home on his head. Great sentiment, looks painful... but probably unlikely to work, especially given the hashtag choice (#RemainsChallenge sounds like he's dropping cremated ashes on his head).

So that is the lesson: while you can’t plan to create a viral campaign, you can prepare to take advantage of one going viral. If you are lucky enough to have this happen to you, astute enough to notice it is happening and ready to act, you can create a waterfall of opportunity and outcome for your cause. 

NOTE: Many thanks to for providing the data used in this article.

Join The Conversation

  • Aug 30 Posted 2 years ago fgould

    My goodness. I thought this article was from yet another 20 year old then I read the bio. I guess my quest was generated by the title but I finished the article still thirsty for the actions. Great statistics on what viral looks like but what did the ALSA and HRC do to "pivot its campaign to focus on it?"

    Maybe that's the next article from Dr. Rosenblatt but I didn't see that in this article. Please let me know if he publishes the action these groups took to leverage the viral video challenge. That's what we need to know to do it right, like they did.

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