Three Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Around the world, people are pouring buckets of icy water over their heads for a good cause. The #ALSicebucketchallenge is like a Phil Collins song in 1989: Everybody likes it. But then it gets played to death on the radio and in department store elevators – and you start to wonder how it could ever have been such a success. Three things the current social media hype can teach us as content marketers.

1. Even difficult topics can be communicated in a light-hearted fashion.


Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a rare and terrible disease which causes the body to gradually lose important muscle functions. Not a pleasant topic of conversation for the water cooler at work. But the ALS Challenge brought the disease out of its niche and into the limelight, when people started pouring a bucket of water over their heads. Let me repeat that: when people started pouring a bucket of water over their heads. If your agency suggested that as an idea for a campaign to your clients, you would be sent packing.

2. Traditional media are multipliers for the Internet.

As long as it was just John from Oklahoma pouring water over himself, only his friends will be interested. The Cold Water Challenge had been doing the rounds on social networks in the USA since mid-2013. Then the phenomenon became mainstream: On July 15, 2014, anchorman Matt Lauer poured a bucket of ice over his head on NBC’s The Today Show. On the same day, golfer Chris Kennedy followed suit – he was the first to mention ALS research. The Challenge finally hit avalanche proportions when A-list celebrities like Justin Bieber, Mark Zuckerberg and LeBron James joined in. Within a month, the ALS foundation received donations totaling over 50 million dollars. Amazing.

3. The communication consequences of these hypes are uncontrollable.

In social networks, these stories go through a hype cycle in a highly compressed form. They are started by innovators with an interesting idea, followed by a peak of awareness and imitation, before a collapse (“it’s not that great”) – just like the Phil Collins song. Now, the ALS Foundation President’s salary is being criticized online. The organization’s tax returns are being examined and users in social networks are increasingly annoyed by the subject. What was cool just four weeks ago is out today.

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