ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Success or Self Absorbed?

Let's Talk About Marketing Campaigns Real Quick

There are two kinds: branding and direct response. They have different names because they have different goals and objectives. Direct response campaigns compel people to action and traditionally focus on clicks, sign-ups, or conversions. Branding campaigns focus on impressions and awareness. The ALS ice bucket challenge is an example of the latter, a branding campaign.

When I think of awesome marketing campaigns, I think of “A Kodak Moment” or Mastercard’s “Priceless” campaign. I think about Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the concept of an idea virus infecting people who spread it to others. I also now think about dumping big buckets of ice water on one’s head and daring three friends to do it, too. This idea originated as a way to raise awareness (and money, one presumes) for ALS; and it has. 

ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a vicious disease that destroys the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement. It has nothing to do with ice water or intentionally giving yourself mild hypothermia on the internet; however, there are a number of charities all over the country that are working to end this disease. I know this, because my friends are all dumping ice water on themselves instead of donating money to the aforementioned charities. Now, this challenge has skyrocketed funding for ALS charities, generating over one million dollars. You can read more about that here and here. However, because of the comparative high attention, low net gain nature of this campaign, a lot of articles and posts hate on it by saying that it accomplishes nothing more than making people wet and cold. It’s nothing more than a reason for self absorbed people to get undressed and show off how sexy they (think they) are while dancing around under ice water. It is an excuse to do something hilarious and call it charity. Some go so far as to call it a waste of water. A hypothesis of that kind seems to misunderstand the basic objective of a branding campaign as I have defined it above.

People who say things like this have grasped the concept, yet misunderstood the point.

These Are Millennials We're Talking About

You know, the people who thought it would be a good idea to put a camera on both sides of the telephone for the apparently common occurrence that all you really want is another picture of yourself...by yourself. The ALS ice bucket challenge hijacks the basic egocentric needs of the selfie generation and puts them to good use. And that’s the point. Without spending a dime, ALS has more impressions online than ever before. That is not an opinion. If you would like to see what successful viral marketing looks like all you need to do is ask Google. The chart below tracks search interest on the topic of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in the last 90 days in the US. This is one of the most successful marketing campaigns (and prettiest example graphs) I have ever seen.

Google Trends Report June through August search popularity of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

Google Trends Report June through August search popularity of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

And here’s the same graph for "ALS donation" in the last 30 days.

Thirty day trendline for ALS Donation in search popularity. 

Thirty day trendline for ALS Donation in search popularity. 

Success, or Self Absorption? 

No, dumping water on your head doesn't directly help. Yes, campaigns like this are going to become less effective over time because they are subject to the laws of diminishing returns. That’s really not the point; very few companies (much less charities) are prepared to sustainably scale at these rates in 30-90 day periods anyways. The point is: right now, today, more people are aware of ALS because it is correlated with an ice bucket challenge; and this is a story of tremendous success. I'd encourage anyone to donate if he feels compelled; but if not, definitely leverage your social circle to let those close to you know about a way they can help raise awareness for an underfunded group in much need of financial assistance.