The Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) all started with one man posting a video and a challenge to his friends online, to raise awareness of the devastating disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Motor Neuron Disease in Australia) and money for the ALS Association. To date, the ALS Association has received more than $100 million in donations thanks to the IBC. Many charities have set out to do the same thing and yet never achieved results anywhere near the IBC. How did the IBC achieve this astounding success and what can charities learn from it?

Let’s look at why the IBC was so successful

The IBC concept was simple: video yourself having a bucket of ice poured over you, or donate money to the ALS Association instead (or why not do both!). The one catch was that you had to first be nominated by someone to do the challenge, and then once you’d completed the challenge yourself, you had to pick three people to do it next. And of course, the video has to be posted on social media.

On the surface, it seems like a bit of a fluke that this challenge became so popular. But looking closer, we can see the ingredients that brought about this campaign’s success are much more complex than first thought:

It’s all about the person posting it

The content being shared was all about the person posting it. People weren’t being asked to spread a message about Motor Neurone Disease, they were being asked to share a video about themselves. Selfie was the word of the year in 2013, and in 2014 people still want to share content that is all about themselves (amongst other things, of course). There was no ASL Association branding and people were able to make the videos their own.


There was an element of surprise and suspense, every video was totally different even though they were all essentially the same thing. This is different to many other campaigns I’ve seen, where people are all asked to share exactly the same video or image to spread a message.

Social pressure

Everyone who participated in the challenge had to nominate a friend, effectively spreading the message. This achieved social pressure – so many people were doing the challenge, were you going to be the one not to do it? Each person had to nominate three people, so if you were picked it meant you were important to that someone (here’s an article which mentions more about this: Why the Ice Bucket Challenge cut through and went viral).

Exclusive club

People who were nominated effectively became part of an exclusive club – invite only, sorry. This exclusivity is mentioned as a key factor to creating a viral message in Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

It’s a challenge

The word ‘challenge’ made the IBC seem like something you had to be brave or tough enough to do. If you were nominated, all your friends, families and networks knew about it – would you back down? Imagine if the IBC was instead called the ‘Ice Bucket Fundraiser’, the ‘Ice Bucket Party’, or the ‘Ice Bucket Month’ – it loses its pull. Are you tough enough to have ice poured over your head?

Comfort zones

In Contagious: Why Things Catch On Berger suggests we feel more compelled to tell others about incidents when our adrenaline levels are most likely to be high. The IBC took people out of their comfort zones, got their hearts beating and adrenaline pumping around their bodies, and therefore the fulfilment and satisfaction levels made them want to share about it. This effectively helped spread and prolong the campaign.

Key influencers got involved

Looking at Australia’s statistics alone, we can see the key influencers who helped spread the word, starting with Hamish McLachlan. Finding the right people to spread your message is mentioned as an important factor in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.


Click the image to view a larger version.  Image source: MND Australia

Low entry barrier

There were not many barriers to participating – the videos were just as funny with old people and young children, at home or at the local park, alone or with friends, with fit or unfit people – the list goes on. In fact, the only barrier to participating was whether or not you had social media and a video device.

All efforts equal

Normal people could be connected to celebrities, ‘cool’ people in their social circles and the whole global trend by being involved. Their efforts in participating were equal to everyone else – no participants did a better job than anyone else. Therefore, if you participated, you were as cool as them.



The challenge wasn’t really the traditional way a cause is promoted. This aided in getting people’s attention and made it a more newsworthy story for the media than a traditional charity event.

What Can We Learn From IBC

Along with the factors listed above, one thing charities can learn from this campaign is to be completely prepared before you start. The ALS Association may have got a bit of a shock at the sudden interest from media and people all over the world, but they handled it well.

The ALS Association website was user friendly, they had great information available and were highlighting an award they won for being financially transparent. They also produced media releases regularly and created frequently asked questions for the increased interest in their association and the fundraiser.

Also, when people made a donation the charity collected their contact details, meaning their database would have grown exponentially. The foundation now has even greater opportunity to continue communication with interested donors into the future. Being prepared and ready for so much sudden interest is a great lesson any charity can learn.

One of the problems with viral social media trends is that once something has been done, it’s over – you can’t try to just do the same thing again. However, all of the above factors can definitely be used to help make your charity’s next social media campaign more successful. While success is never guaranteed, I think the ALS IBC has demonstrated that being willing to try something different can definitely pay off.

If you’d like a more in-depth understanding of why some things become a viral phenomenon and others don’t, I recommend reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Contagious by Jonah Berger.

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