I love internet memes, but I hate the way each one gets turned into fodder for advertising publications and agency bloggers to (try to) turn the event into a "teachable moment" for marketers. While a trend is hot, news sites and agencies strive to build more attention and traffic with a form of newsjacking, leveraging interest in a trending topic to create attention for themselves. Right now, this is happening with the Ice Bucket Challenge, with dozens of news, blog and LinkedIn posts telling marketers what they can learn from this meme. I do not agree with much of what has been written, so at risk of engaging in newsjacking myself, I am going to write about this program and hope that it encourages more dialog and consideration about this craze and what it may or may not mean for marketers.
Sometimes, a meme can furnish a few lessons that marketers might consider when developing their marketing strategies. At other times, the connection between the event and brands is tenuous, at best. And on occasion, the effort to turn current events into something relevant for brands and marketers blows back.
Many recently criticized PR agency Edelman for publishing a blog post immediately after Robin Williams' suicide suggesting brands "Seize the day" and use the tragedy "as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation." While the Edelman blog post was worthy of criticism, it was really just a symptom of a larger issue: Marketers' and agencies' continued promotion and use of dubious tactics such as "real-time marketing" and "brand newsrooms." These schemes attempt to hijack consumer emotion and interest in a current event to make otherwise irrelevant brands more relevant.
Business leaders must recognize that companies build relevance not by hopping from one trending topic to another but with concerted and ongoing effort in specific and discrete issues that resonate with consumers. Edelman should know--better than most--that the time for a company to demonstrate care for depression and suicide is before a celebrity death brings these topics to the forefront and not after Twitter is abuzz. One way tells consumers that your organization stands for something more than profits; the other tells consumers your brand is a vulture willing to exploit any tragedy or event to try to boost the bottom line.
It is happening again--while the world is busy dumping buckets of ice water over their heads, ad industry news sites and agency blogs are lighting up with posts about what marketers can learn from the #IceBucketChallenge. Alas, I believe many of these posts and articles are simply wrong, drawing arguable connections between what worked for this charitable effort and what will work for brands. Here is what I believe marketers can (and cannot) take from the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge:
- The #IceBucketChallenge demonstrates the power of social media, not the power of social media marketing. (Tweet This): Almost every article and blog post I have read calls this a "campaign." It is not. A campaign is a planned series of marketing events launched by an organization to achieve a goal, but the ALS Association did not plan, launch or manage this (although they have eagerly jumped on the bandwagon). The Ice Bucket Challenge was a spontaneous and viral happening created and spread by individuals; in fact, had the ALS Association attempted to launch this themselves, they likely would have been criticized for manipulating and asking too much of people. The Ice Bucket Challenge succeeded not because it was a carefully crafted campaign but because it wasn't.
- The Ice Bucket Challenge didn't succeed because it is easy but because it is difficult. I have read several times that brands can learn from this program that making participation easy for consumers is vital. Excuse me--the Ice Bucket Challenge was easy?! Most brands would do backflips simply to get 15 seconds of consumers' time to post a rating or positive comment. Meanwhile, the Ice Bucket Challenge required people to find a bucket, fill it, lug the heavy bucket somewhere convenient, fill it with ice, set up a smartphone to capture everything, lift the heavy bucket, douse themselves in ice-cold water, dry off, change clothes and post the video online. And, oh yeah, donate money! If that is your idea of easy, I wonder what a difficult activity might be!
Ironically, had the challenge been something easy--"I dare you to post a video doing a duck face!," for example--it would not have worked. Because the Ice Bucket Challenge was difficult, it gave people an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to make the effort--and no, your brand probably cannot get people to do heroic activities in support of your product or service.
- The Ice Bucket Challenge was not a program about caring but about pride and shame. Before you react negatively to me calling out ego and humiliation as drivers, let me point out that this is not a criticism. The program succeeded, and there is nothing wrong a charity with using the human emotions of pride and shame to achieve a positive end; after all, those are exactly the same mechanics that work in many charitable programs. Take, for example, the VFW fundraising program where volunteers stand with cash buckets in front of store entryways and give away little flowers to those who donate. If you cough up cash, you get a Buddy Poppy to wear around that day, showing pride in your small sacrifice; but if you make eye contact and walk past without donating, you feel shame. (You know you do!)
The fact that people could show off how creative they were (with Bill Gates building a dousing contraption and Stephanie Izard doing an ice bucket Flashdance) was a big part of the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. So was the part of the program that demanded people call others out by name; this was the charitable equivalent of a chain email, but because of the social media elements, people could not break the chain privately and quietly but only by humiliating themselves with silence and inaction. While some have claimed this program was about pulling at the heartstrings, I can recall seeing just one video that was legitimately emotional. The lesson of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that pride and shame are powerful human emotions, but brands should be very wary of trying to activate these emotions as part of a for-profit marketing campaign.
- The Ice Bucket Challenge was not successful as a cohesive marketing effort, but it was a great first step. As I write this, the ALS Association has received $41 million of donations thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge, more than double what the organization raised in its last fiscal year. But while this clearly had a terrific fundraising impact in 2014, will it build future success for the ALS Association? For example, I would suggest the Ice Bucket Challenge did little to raise awareness. Most people had heard of Lou Gehrig's Disease before the Ice Bucket Challenge, and afterwards, how many of the participants would be able to identify its symptoms, when it strikes, its prevalence or anything else about ALS? Very few of the Ice Bucket videos made even passing reference to ALS, and without awareness and knowledge, this one-time event cannot be turned into a lasting driver of success in the fight against ALS.
Of course, the ALS Association now has the names and contact data for more than 700,000 new donors. If the charity fails to educate those individuals, few will donate again and the association will not build upon this success for future fundraising benefit. With additional concerted effort, the ALS Association may convert this successful acquisition program into an effective awareness, loyalty and repeat donation effort. The point that marketers should take from this is that no single campaign or program can be a soup-to-nuts success delivering on every marketing goal; instead, building deep, strong, and long-lasting consumer relationships takes a cohesive brand journey.
It takes nothing away from the generosity of many or the rewards accruing to the ALS Association to point out that this was not an effective marketing program but another example of the way social media lightning can strike unexpectedly. This is what brands can learn: Consumers are fickle and crowds are hard to predict or motivate. They can ignore your carefully-crafted and expensive viral video campaign then then turn around and make the Harlem Shake the next big thing.
Kudos to the ALS Association for seeing the Ice Bucket Challenge rising out of the crowd and being agile enough to capitalize on the opportunity. In the end, that may be the most important message of all for brands--your brand succeeds not with what you plan and post but with what consumers think and do. If brands did more worth talking about and concentrated less on broadcasting content, they would have a better chance of building relevance and loyalty in the social media era.