The Ice Bucket Challenge Article icon


Will Smith did it. Beyoncé, the Beckhams, Oprah Winfrey and even Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and George W Bush have done it, although President Obama has declined to take part – dodging possible humiliation and hypothermia.

It’s the Ice Bucket Challenge – the fastest spreading charity campaign ever known – which has swamped social media, drawn in hundreds of celebrities and raised awareness and much-needed funds for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), known in the UK as Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

‘It was a watershed moment,’ says Lewis Webb, digital director at Text100, a global communications agency. ‘This was the year we’ve all come to terms with selfies. And when you add celebrities into the mix and the competitive nomination aspect, it’s no surprise the campaign went viral.’

Unless you spent the summer in Antarctica, you know the drill: give a short speech about motor neurone disease, dump a bucket of ice cubes in cold water over your head, and post a video of yourself getting drenched onto Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or any other social media platform, and then tag three (or ten or even 300) of your friends to do likewise.

Alternatively, you could just make a donation, like Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who filmed himself writing a cheque and dropping a few cubes of ice into a tumbler of whiskey for his Ice Bucket Challenge.

But it is watching how celebrities (and others) approach the challenge that is also half the fun. At the last count, Ice Bucket Challenge videos have been watched more than one billion times on YouTube by viewers across more than 150 countries. And more than 2.5 million ice bucket-related videos have been posted on Facebook.

Donations have also poured in. On 8 September, American charity The ALS Association announced it had received donations worth $110 million (£67 million) so far this year, an increase of nearly 4,000 per cent compared to the same period last year. The MND Association, meanwhile, has received £6 million to date – the lion’s share of it after 22 August, when the campaign took hold in the UK.

The ALS Association received less than $3 million from supporters last year while donations to the MND Association rose seven-fold in August, so it is safe to say the surge is entirely due to the Ice Bucket Challenge. But how did this campaign turn into such a social media phenomenon?

According to Matt Moorut, digital marketing executive at Technology Trust, which offers technical support for charities, there are four key factors at play. The first is shareability. ‘If it’s not designed in a way that makes it easy for people to spread the word, it’s unlikely to do well online,’ he explains. ‘I’m not saying you have to name friends, it can just be a case of having easily accessible sharing buttons for images or videos on social media.’

The second element is fun. Part of the appeal of the challenge is that it offers everyone – from famous celebrities to ordinary people – the chance to show off online for a good cause with very little effort. The statistics tell the story. Nearly 20 million people have watched billionaire Bill Gates accept Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Ice Bucket Challenge, and get soaked by a contraption of his own design.

The next most popular video, with 18 million views, was posted by actor Charlie Sheen who didn’t drench himself in ice water, but instead poured $10,000 in dollar bills over his head while saying Ice is going to melt but this money is going to actually help people. Sheen then ‘called out’ his former Two and a Half Men co-star Jon Cryer, its producer Chuck Lorre and his successor Ashton Kutcher to follow suit. And almost 8.8 million people have watched topless ice hockey player Paul Bissonnette being doused with glacier water thrown from a helicopter for his Ice Bucket Challenge.

But the campaign’s success was also helped by the current affairs background. The challenges took place during a summer of relentlessly bad news: atrocities in Syria and Iraq, the bombing of Gaza and Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. ‘Let’s face it, everyone was desperate for a little comic relief,’ says Malcolm Burrows, head of Philanthropic Advisory Services, at Scotia Private Client Group.

The third contributor to its success was the gamification element, which the Ice Bucket Challenge was able to tap into through its use of nominations. Under the challenge ‘rules’, a person nominated to participate has 24 hours to comply or forfeit by way of a charitable financial donation. ‘This competitive element was key,’ agrees Webb. ‘You could get your own back on someone if you wanted, like stitching up your brother or your boss.’

Finally, the challenge was opportunistic. Although the campaign did not originate with The ALS Association, the once obscure charity quickly seized the opportunity when it was first linked to the challenge back in July – by engaging with participants and making donations easy. They even filed two trademark applications with the US Patent Office claiming they owned the phrases ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ and ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’, although these were subsequently withdrawn after receiving widespread criticism.

In the UK, it was a slightly different story. Rather than the MND Association benefiting as one might expect, Macmillan Cancer Support quickly jumped in after Sir Richard Branson recommended the charity use the challenge to generate donations. Shortly afterwards, the charity began to promote the campaign and hashtag on its website, as well as making it easy to make a small (£3) text donation.

As the Ice Bucket Challenge grows in size and reach, it has also attracted criticism. ‘There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism,’ wrote Arielle Pardes, a writer for digital magazine Vice. She might have been referring to Donatella Versace’s ice bucket challenge. Seated on a throne and flanked by two muscular, shirtless, young men, the Italian fashion designer was doused by iced water poured from two ornate, blue and gold Versace vases which retail at $405 apiece.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is just the latest in a series of online fundraising exercises that are revolutionising the charity sector. The most successful charity campaigns in recent times have grown organically, without the involvement of dedicated marketing teams.

For example, the #nomakeupselfie craze earlier this year saw thousands of women, including celebrities, share bare-faced selfies of themselves online while nominating others to do the same. The trend began in early March after novelist Laura Lippman posted a barefaced photo of herself on Facebook in support of actress Kim Novak who was criticised for seemingly going au naturel at the Oscars. Its success in the UK has been largely attributed to Fiona Cunningham, a teenage mother from Stoke-on-Trent, who set up a Facebook Page, encouraging people to post ‘no make up’ selfies while also donating to Cancer Research UK. Her Page quickly picked up 260,000 ‘Likes’, and within the space of six days, Cancer Research UK received more than £8 million in donations, enough to fund ten new clinical trials.

‘What we are seeing is a huge shift,’ says Zoe Amar, director of Zoe Amar Communications. ‘It’s really blowing a hole in the command and control model of previous campaigns. I don’t think Don Draper [the fictional advertising character on Mad Men] would cope very well with this situation!’

Part of the success of both campaigns is due to the ease of donation. The mechanism for giving is changing. JustGiving, the world’s largest charity platform, calculates that 90 per cent of donations to #icebucketchallenge pages have been made via text, rather than more traditional routes of standing orders, dropping money into collection tins or sponsorship.

As for the Ice Bucket Challenge? Paul Sutton, head of digital communications at Bottle, thinks campaigns like it may have reached a saturation point. ‘There will be a stage when there will be a Been there, done that element,’ he says. ‘People will get tired of it.’ Amar disagrees: ‘I think you will see a big campaign before Christmas. I’m not too sure where it will come from, but that is what makes it so fresh and exciting.’



Andrzej Marczewski, internal web manager at Capgemini UK and gamification expert, used his bespoke ‘User Types Hexad Analysis tool’, which considers the motivations of six types of user, to look at the sort of person who might wish to get involved in this campaign:

I had assumed it would be the philanthropist/altruistic types, but I was a little wrong. What elements and motivations are at play then? For me, there are the following key elements.

1) Narrative/story – tell your story, and let others tell theirs

2) Meaning/purpose – people need to understand the meaning of what they are doing

3) Care-taking – looking after other people can be very fulfilling

4) Gifting/sharing – whilst a form of altruism, the potential for reciprocity can be very motivating

5) Voting/voice – give people a voice and let them be heard

6) Creativity tools – allow people to create their own content and express themselves

7) Customisation – give people the tools to customise their experience

8) Challenges – challenges keep people interested

9) Social status – status can lead to greater visibility for people

10) Social pressure – people don’t like feeling they are the odd one out

11) Competition – give people the chance to prove themselves against others

12) Time pressure – reducing the amount of time people have to do things can focus their decision making on the task at hand

Taking all these elements into account actually favours the Socialiser slightly more than the Philanthropist!

There is a huge amount of social play involved in this challenge, but the key ones are status and pressure. Think about it. You are challenged by someone you know. They give you 24 hours – that is social pressure and time pressure in one hit. Add to that the status and pride you could lose by backing out and you have a real challenge on! You also want to be a little creative, for some this may be one of the most ‘fun’ aspects of the challenge – see how interesting you can make you video.

There is lots of other stuff at play here as well. Celebrities have been doing it, so many will want to emulate their heroes. There is competition: who can use the most ice? Who can do the most extreme challenge?

Of course there is also the charitable aspect, the purpose and meaning of it all. That is why I did it. It was a fun and interesting way to raise money and awareness for a good cause.

There are many lessons we can learn from this for our own projects, be they charitable or otherwise.

• Have a story people can emotionally invest in

• Create novelty

• Make it social

• Keep it focused and simple