Why the ice bucket challenge works: my Sept. Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column

"Veronica's Ice Bucket Challenge" by Kyle Nishioka on Flickr

“Veronica’s Ice Bucket Challenge” by Kyle Nishioka on Flickr

Why the ice bucket challenge works

If you’ve visited Facebook, Instagram or Twitter lately, you’ve likely seen videos of your friends – and a few celebrities – dousing themselves with cold water, pledging to contribute to a cause and encouraging others to do the same.

The phenomenon, called the ice bucket challenge, took off earlier this year as a way of raising awareness and charitable support for the ALS Association, an organization that advocates for individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gerhig’s Disease.

Just how pervasive is the ice bucket challenge? According to The New York Times, more than 1.2 million challenge videos were shared on Facebook between June 1 and Aug. 13, and the challenge was mentioned more than 2 million times on Twitter since July 29. Perhaps most notably, as of Aug. 22, the ice bucket challenge has raised more than $50 million for the ALS Association.

With results like these, brands of all kinds – not just nonprofits – are wondering whether they could use social media in a similar way or whether such copycat efforts would be, well, all wet. The fact is, phenomena like the ice bucket challenge are incredibly rare, but there are some lessons organizations can learn that may make their social media efforts much more successful.

• First, remember that people share only that which they believe has value. When someone posts to Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other social network, they do so because they believe that information is worthy of being seen by others. The implicit question is, “Does anyone agree?” People signal their agreement with likes, comments and shares, and the person who authored the post gets the small endorphin rush that comes with validation.

What’s the lesson for organizations? What’s important to your audience trumps what is important to you. Make sure you put yourself in their shoes to determine what might get traction.

• When you let the audience share in your story, it becomes their story, too. Who’s the star of the ice bucket challenge? The individuals sharing their videos. For a moment, they get to be the center of attention – which leads to some residual attention for the ALS Association.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Whenever possible, make the audience the messenger, not just the intended recipient of the message.

• Make it sharable. There’s a very social aspect to the ice bucket challenge in that participants can nominate others to take part. That makes it naturally migrate through and across networks, growing the community exponentially.

What’s the lesson for organizations? As inferred above, it’s not about you. It’s about your audience members’ innate desire to connect with each other and share an experience.

• Make it fun. One of the reasons your audience uses social media is to make good use of their discretionary time. That often means they want to find content that elicits an emotion, which could be a smile or tear. The innovative ways in which the ice bucket challenge has been completed provide inexpensive, accessible entertainment, often with a moving message.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Your message is competing against every other message the audience could consume at a given time. If it doesn’t connect with people, it won’t be seen by many of them.

• Make it fast. The average ice bucket challenge video is very short. Many are no more than 15 seconds, a reflection of our dwindling attention spans.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Less is more. Today, if you ask for too much of the audience’s time, you may not get any of it.

• The medium matters. Many ice bucket challenge videos are shot on smartphones without any special equipment or skills. Video is effective because it engages multiple senses, unlike text or photos. It has, therefore, become the preferred method of content production and consumption.

What’s the lesson for organizations? If video content isn’t part of your social media arsenal – even if it’s user generated – then you’re missing out.

• Going viral is two parts planning and one part good luck. There’s no way to “make” a campaign go viral. It’s entirely up to the audience. You certainly can position your message to have a better chance of spreading, but you can’t force it.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Timing matters, so avoid launching your campaign at a time when the audience’s attention is spread especially thin (during holidays, for example, unless your message is related to the occasion). Even then, however, it might fall flat. When it does, try again, but learn from any missteps.

There’s no question the ice bucket challenge will soon be a memory – just like every social media craze. However, something new will surely follow in its footsteps. If your organization wants to play along, keep the advice above in mind and you just might find yourself in the middle of something really cool.

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