The noise of unrealistic expectations

(Photo courtesy Anthony Quintano via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Anthony Quintano via Flickr)

What did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge have that your agency's social campaign doesn't?

My friend is the co-founder of an extremely worthy not-for-profit organization and just could not contain her excitement. We were at the Stratford Festival and all she could talk about was the unprecedented success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. For me, all this did was make it difficult to enjoy King Lear. Marketers already had unrealistic hopes about the power of organic (free) social, and the success of this latest phenomenon would cause their expectations to go through the roof. It’d be the new version of "Let’s just do a video and make it go viral!"

So for the sake of everyone in our business, I’ve decided to dispel the Ice Bucket myth with an ice-bucket worth of reality. I want to analyze why this one succeeded and what we can learn from it; the reasons so many free social campaigns go nowhere; and, finally, how we can increase our chances of success. 

But let’s get one thing out of the way first: there’s no question the Ice Bucket Challenge was an unqualified success. According to Forbes, more than 3 million people helped raise $100 million (3,500 percent more than the $2.8 million raised in 2013). If you Google "als ice bucket challenge," you get 86.5 million mostly organic results in 0.37 seconds.

What makes this tale doubly fascinating is that the Ice Bucket Challenge was never intended to be what it became for ALS. When the fad reached Florida’s James Whatmore, golf coach to pro Chris Kennedy, it was referred to as the "24 hour challenge," and the nominees were asked to donate to the challenger’s charity of choice. Once tagged, Kennedy selected ALS because a relative suffers from the disease. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like many successful viral campaigns, it’s hard to pin down what exactly makes something like this work, and still harder to replicate it. After all, how does something like the Gregory Brothers’ bed intruder song make everyone go so crazy? Their more recent attempt with the apparently kid failed miserably.

Nevertheless, there is much we can take from deconstructing the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Larry Downes got me started by explaining that "eliminating friction," or removing obstacles, is the most important step in unleashing a meme. How did the Ice Bucket challenge do this? It managed to tap into five innate motivators:

  1. Simplicity: Don’t make me work hard.
  2. Meaning: Tell me why I should care.
  3. Human: People like to see friends, celebrities and especially their bosses look silly and vulnerable.
  4. Peer pressure: By having individuals publicly nominate others, the campaign ensured that people would take the challenge to avoid getting called out.
  5. Time-bound action: There was a simple call to action that had to be accomplished in a clearly specified and realistically short period of time – 24 hours.

So if another charity uses this 5-point formula, will it see a similar level of success?

Using paid social to guarantee distribution will give them the best shot. It’s Milton who said, "There’s no such thing as a free lunch," and the same can be said about organic social. At MediaCom, we call ourselves the Content and Connections Agency, and believe in the words of Buzzfeed’s Jonathan Perelman, who quipped, "Content is king, but distribution is queen and she wears the pants." If you have great creative you want everyone to see (and your social campaign has business-related KPIs), why would you leave things to chance by hoping that organic social will do the work for you?

P&G generated millions in organic social buzz for Old Spice, but it was the brand’s paid social that extended the campaign’s momentum. After a successful online launch over Super Bowl weekend, the campaign captured 75 percent of all the conversations in its category. Then the company fanned the flames by pushing 180 customized videos directly to excited fans and celebrities in just 3 days.

By Day 3, the campaign had reached over 20 million views, and the campaign increased sales by 27 percent in just 6 months.

A Q1 2014 AOL Platform study reveals that – in a straight comparison between organic and paid social media – paid social media leads to 25 percent more conversions than organic social.

The question is: If you have a spectacular idea based on a killer insight, do you want to leave its success to chance? The ALS got very, very lucky, but luck is not a strategy.

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