The Ice Bucket Challenge: 10 Behavioral Marketing Lessons

HCC ice bucket challenge (Medium)The Ice Bucket Challenge:

10 Behavioral Marketing Lessons

by Mike Walker • September 17, 2014

For those of you who took the last six weeks off to vacation under a rock, the nation has been swept up in an enormously popular nonprofit fundraiser called the Ice Bucket Challenge.  It’s a social media-driven campaign that’s convinced millions of people to pour ice water on their heads to raise awareness for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  To date, the ALS Foundation has raised an astonishing $110 million from the Ice Bucket Challenge on a marketing budget of approximately…


Here at AlterAction, we’re quite used to operating on a marketing budget of approximately nothing.  And while at first glance the Ice Bucket Challenge (let’s call it “IBC” for short) looks like a crazy fad that just happened to catch fire with the public, there’s actually a lot of behavioral science at work behind the scenes of frozen faces.  Here’s our cheat-sheet in case your boss wants a social marketing campaign plan “on my desk tomorrow!”  We can’t guarantee $110 million worth of free marketing, but you’ll definitely improve your reach if you follow these tips.

1.  Make it entertaining.

Americans like to be entertained.  Even in the internet age, we still watch an average of more than five hours of TV a day.  And what’s not entertaining about watching a brief video clip of someone having ice poured over their heads?  Especially when it’s someone we know?

2.  Appeal to people’s emotions.

Humans are social animals, and we crave (not always consciously) emotional connections with other humans.  Joining a worthy cause provides us with an opportunity to share an emotional connection and to feel good about ourselves.  It makes us feel like we are part of something important.  As Chip and Dan Heath argue in their #1 New York Times Best Seller, Switch, feeling leads us to doing.

3.  Give simple, specific instructions for the desired behavior.

The IBC is pretty straightforward: you pour a bucket of ice over your head within a 24-hour time period — or make a donation.  (The hope is that the participant does both.)  One very well-documented finding in social psychology research is that people are far more likely to do something when the directions they need to follow are simple and specific. In fact, the more options we face, the more we become overloaded, and we simply default to our routines.  So whatever you want someone to do, spell it out.

4.  Make the “ask” reasonable.

A client recently asked us to help them boost the participation of technology executives in a survey about energy efficiency.  However, the survey took approximately 30-45 minutes to complete, and let’s just say that it wasn’t particularly entertaining.  Soliciting technology executives to donate 30-45 minutes of their time for a voluntary and somewhat tedious survey is probably not a reasonable “ask”.  By contrast, asking for a $100 charitable donation isn’t a particularly onerous request, and making a short video of yourself can be pretty engaging.  For business leaders, it’s a ready-made opportunity for great publicity, which is one of the reasons why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos joined the fun.

5.  Encourage your audience to personalize and spread the core message.

Part of the fun is putting your own creative stamp on the IBC.  And personalizing the message with your own style gives you a more compelling reason to share it with friends.  The IBC is inherently visual and (mercifully) brief, so it “works” in a photo or short video clip, ideal for sharing over any number of social media networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.  If you want a campaign to go viral, make it easy for others to share it across multiple platforms.

6.  Add a sense of immediacy.

If you’re asked to take the IBC, you have only 24 hours to do so.  By giving your audience a deadline, you add to the sense of urgency and increase the likelihood that they’ll complete the task.

7.  Leverage the power of consistency.

Most people want to think of themselves as charitable and/or generous.  When they are called upon to demonstrate that generosity, they’ll encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently.  When you’re making a request, find a way to make the request seem consistent with your audiences’ prior public commitments.  Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, points out that asking people to make public commitments is even more powerful.

8.  Tap into social norms.

When we aren’t sure how to act in a given situation, we tend to look to others in our social group for clues.  Sociologists refer to these clues as “social norms”.  When you’re challenged by a friend to participate in the IBC, you’re inferring that because other people you know and respect are doing it, it might be a good idea for you, too.

9.  Get influencers involved.

Every audience has influencers: people that they look to for direction.  One of the great successes of the IBC was in getting a wide range of influencers on board.  When celebrities, business leaders, community leaders, and your most influential and connected friends are participating, it’s hard to resist joining the fray.

10.  Give it a simple, easy to remember name — and hashtag.

Research by social scientists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer concluded that people feel more positive about names that are easy to read, remember, and pronounce.  Although it may sound superficial, it suggests that the IBC would not have been quite as successful had it been called the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Frigid Cranium Offensive.  It also helps to have easy-to-remember hashtags for categorizing social media posts, like #IceBucketChallenge and #StrikeoutALS.  These hashtags made it simple for people to search for and learn more about the campaign, and to make others aware of their involvement.