Jun 25, 2018

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Phenomenon

by Digital Marketing Institute

The term viral marketing isn’t something to take lightly. In fact, becoming a viral marketing hit is no easy feat – but a well-placed, well-timed campaign delivered with flow, structure and a robust mix of creative elements has the power to reach a highly-engaged, highly-entertained worldwide audience.

If your campaign goes viral, the rewards in terms of brand awareness, brand authority and audience growth are great, promoting your business or organization in ways that no other digital marketing model or medium can.

When a viral campaign gains real traction, it seems as if there’s magic in play, which is what makes viral marketing such a sensational aspect of the digital marketing world.

Of the many inspiring viral marketing successes in recent times – initiatives that will be discussed in due course – perhaps the most notable is the now legendary ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Here we explore the inspiration behind the campaign, in addition to the essential ingredients that made this viral marketing initiative such a tremendous, almost intangible, success.

The Background

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating degenerative motor neurone disease that affects around 5,600 people per year.

Initially, the ice bucket challenge wasn’t associated with a charity in particular. On July 15, 2014, golfer Charles Kennedy was nominated by a good friend to do something called an ‘ice bucket challenge’ – and he obliged.

In doing so, Kennedy decided that the funds raised by his challenge should go towards research for ALS, as his cousin suffered from the disease.

He then nominated his cousin’s wife to take on the challenge in the name of ALS to help raise funds and spread awareness for the cause. This nomination-based model quickly reached New York-based ALS sufferer, Pat Quinn.

With the help of longtime friend and fellow ALS sufferer Pete Frates, a former Boston College basketball player, the official ALS ice bucket challenge was born.

Frates nominated several members of the Boston Red Sox to take on the challenge – the majority of them did, and a viral marketing sensation was born.

Eventually, the ALS ice bucket challenge had travelled from Charles Kennedy’s backyard to the White House, and beyond.

The Concept

The concept behind the ALS ice bucket challenge is simple: you film yourself being doused with a freezing cold bucket of ice cube-filled water and then post the video and publicly nominate three friends via social media to raise money for ALS.

To put words into action, here’s Charles Kennedy’s ice bucket challenge video:

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The ‘challenge and nominate’ strategy that formed the foundations of this explosive viral marketing campaign is one the biggest drivers of its overall success.

Speaking of the ice bucket challenge, Max Lenderman, CEO of the advertising agency School explained: “It’s totally own-able, unique, iconic and simple. It’s highly broadcastable, but it’s so personal because of the calling-out aspect.”

The Essential Elements

In addition to its public nomination strategy bestowing the campaign with a tremendous social reach, here are the other essential elements that helped the ALS ice bucket challenge become an enormous viral success:


Humor is a dangerous art as it is particularly subjective. But, by injecting a lighthearted, humorous element into your marketing campaign responsibly, you stand a good chance of boosting it into viral realms.

A study from textbook rental business Chegg revealed that almost 80 % of college-aged kids remember ads that make them laugh. Moreover, almost 70% of people over the age of 45 are more receptive to humor in a subject line than a younger audience. This is a clear indication that humor speaks to a broad demographic.

In the case of the ALS ice buket challenge, rather than trying too hard to convey a funny, quirky tone of voice, the humor came organically – from the act of throwing ice on one’s head.

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By making each challenger the center of attention, the humorous element came from the people taking part, as a result of the natural human reaction to being doused in ice water, as well as the amusing interchanges between challengers and nominees through social media.


By its very nature, ALS is an emotive subject. As a result, the ice bucket challenge gained traction and picked up momentum in a matter of weeks – three, to be precise.

While the product, service, brand or concept you’re promoting might not be as emotive as a cause like ALS, by taking an emotional approach to your campaign, you will inspire people to engage in – and encourage others to engage in – your content, as well as your core message.

In fact, a study from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising discovered that adverts with purely emotional content generated twice as much profit as ads based on rational content: 31% vs 16%. Moreover, Psychology Today’s functional MRI neuro-imagery shows that consumers use emotions over information to evaluate a brand’s message.

By spreading awareness about an urgent and noble cause in a positive, proactive and communal way, the ALS ice bucket challenge tapped into human emotion, inspiring droves of people to play their part, to donate and to share an important message.


If a marketing campaign excludes a great number of people, its potential to build buzz and go viral will be slim to none.

So, for a marketing campaign to morph into a viral sensation, your content, tone or message should be inclusive of the majority of the population.

In the case of the ALS ice bucket challenge, the ‘challenge’ aspect was something accessible to most. Not only was it possible to partake in the challenge with a bucket of ice water and a smartphone, but the time and effort it took to complete the challenge was minimal. Many people like a challenge but are deterred if it’s deemed too hard or there are too many steps to consider – a little like user experience (UX) when it comes to making an online purchase.

While there was a challenging element to the ice bucket challenge, it was fun, simple and far from time-consuming – a powerful combination that allowed it travel rapidly, making waves in a total of 153 countries worldwide.

If there isn’t a ‘challenge’ aspect to your marketing campaign, a simple, creative concept communicated in a way that everyone can understand will ultimately travel the farthest. If your campaign is too socially exclusive, too complicated or too convoluted, it’s unlikely it will build buzz or go viral.


Due to its visual, social media-based campaign model, the ice bucket challenge expanded its reach exponentially in a short space of time, reaching the feeds of people from all walks of life.

As a result of this well-placed initiative, the challenge benefitted from a healthy dose of celebrity endorsement, with the likes of Madonna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga all taking part and nominating other high profile personalities via their public social media feeds.

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Early on, the Ice Bucket Challenge was adopted by people with notable social media followings – the entire Boston Red Sox being a prime example – creating a level of buzz that made it one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time.

By making efforts early on to target your campaign content at online influencers, you will be able to create a bonafide buzz very quickly, which is essential if you want your campaign to go viral. And it doesn’t have to be traditional celebrities; non-celebrity bloggers are 10 times more likely to influence a purchase or decision than celebrities.


The hashtag is synonymous with popular culture – and as #icebucketchallenge was leveraged throughout the campaign, its global reach expanded in a matter of weeks, with 2.2 million Twitter mentions between July 29 and August 17, 2014.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Phenomenon

A memorable hashtag is essential to the success of a potential viral digital marketing campaign ­– and the ALS ice bucket challenge is a testament to that.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: The Results

Without any doubt, the ALS ice bucket challenge is one of the world’s biggest viral marketing sensations.

To put its success into perspective, here are some statistics, facts and figures from the 2014 campaign:

  • Through the ice bucket challenge, a total of $220 million (€178 million) was raised for ALS-related organizations.
  • Between July 29 and August 17, 2014, $100 million (€80 million) was raised for the ALS Association.
  • The challenge received a total of one billion YouTube views.
  • In total, the campaign earned a total of 28 million Facebook engagements, including likes, shares and comments during the summer of 2014.
  • The ALS ice bucket challenge became the second most significant Facebook topic of 2014, behind the devastating Ebola virus outbreak.

The viral success of the ALS ice bucket challenge not only raised funds and awareness for a vital cause, but generated focus and funding that helped researchers to make a major genetic breakthrough.

Viral marketing campaigns have the power to inspire, enlighten and amplify the profile of a brand, business or organization, infinitely.

The ALS ice bucket challenge is a masterclass in buzz marketing. By taking note of the campaign’s key elements and using them to create a unique, accessible and shareable social concept, viral success could be yours.

Notable Viral Marketing Campaigns From 2016 and 2017

In addition to the ALS ice bucket challenge, here are three other recent viral marketing campaigns you should explore:

  • Apple Music: Drake vs Bench Press: The tech colossus launched this video, fronted by pop culture icon Drake. A mix of creativity and humor made this a tangible viral hit at the end of 2016.
  • Deadpool on Tinder: Before the release of the Marvel flick Deadpool, the movie’s marketing team created a fictional Tinder profile for its main protagonist. This fun, visual idea gained a great deal of traction on social media, resulting in its viral success.
  • Know Your Lemons: Created by Worldwide Breast Cancer to encourage women to check their breasts regularly, this quirky, original and highly visual campaign earned 7.3 million impressions and was shared more than 40,000 times.

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