The (Ice) Bucket List


The Ice-Bucket Challenge. More than two million videos splashed across Facebook. A cool $22.9 million raised for the ALS Association between July 29 and today, compared with $1.9 million in the same period last year. A wave of celebrities: Matt Lauer, Lady Gaga, George Takei, Oprah, Cristiano Ronaldo, and (of course) master e-exhibitionist James Franco. A flood of commentary, including data-nerd analyses of virality and social networks. And bucketloads of cold water thrown onto this red-hot cultural phenomenon: misplaced priorities, donor cannibalism, moral licensing, hashtag activism, and good old sour grapes. Still, the unavoidable fact is that the ALS Association has about $20 million more to put toward a cure than it did a few weeks ago.

As a public relations professional, I’m not here to praise or pan it. Instead, I want to know what makes it work. So I sat down and listed elements that helped drive its tremendous success.

Here are the top five:

1. It’s fun, easy, and popular. That’s the Triple Crown of effective social marketing, the three rule-of-thumb conditions that facilitate adoption of behaviors. The Ice-Bucket Challenge is family fun (and, yes, it’s ok to say something that is for a good cause is fun) well-timed for the waning days of summer, full of childlike whimsy (kidsoptional) and wholesome giggles. It couldn’t be easier: almost anyone with a container, cold water, and smartphone can do it, and the script—what to say and how to act—is instantly memorable and can be performed in one take. “Popular” might seem like a tautology, but perceived social norms are powerfully influential: when it comes to behavior, we tend to do what we think others are doing. This far into the Challenge diffusion curve, the social risk approaches zero while the fear of missing out increases with every passing day.

2. It makes people look cool (not just cold). Accepting the Challenge shows that you’re man/woman enough to answer when you’re “called out” and is a great way to prove how simultaneously brave and caring you are. It is the lazy man’s Tough Mudder—none of the training or exertion, but at least a little of the tough-guy cred.

3. It lets people flex their muscles. While literally true in some cases, I mean this in two other ways. First, it lets people issue a public Double Dog Dare to their friends and colleagues, giving them a quick-n-easy source of power. Second, it lets people flash their roll of social capital, name-dropping nominees to flaunt the types of people they can influence. Could you get LeBron to take the Ice-Bucket Challenge? Of course not. But Kevin Durant can.

4. It leverages reciprocity. Like social norms, reciprocity is a powerful tool when it comes to influencing others. (Just listen to Robert Cialdini talk about it, or think about the strategy behind offering free samples or sending a “gift” with a direct mail appeal.) In this case, it is less the “I owe you one” of mutual exchange and more of the chain letter/Facebook post effect: if one of your friends accepts another friend’s challenge, you feel compelled to do the same. To do otherwise feels like cheating.

5. It’s customizable. We are social animals, but we’re also proud of our individuality: we all want to follow the herd, but no one wants to be a sheep. The Ice-Bucket Challenge follows the rule of good memes—it lets people take part in a mass movement without losing their identity. There are plenty of ways to make it your own: setting, style, liquid, cast, speech. Celebrities can choose to do it in ways that reinforce their brands (whetherintentionally or not), and brands can do it in ways that reinforce their celebrities.

It is inevitable that a brand will call its agency to ask if they can have an Ice-Bucket Challenge, too. It’s probably already happened. One thing is for sure: topping this success will be a challenge indeed.

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