19 Mar 2015 20:23 IST

How yours can be the next Ice Bucket Challenge

What marketers can learn from it

On August 31, Siddhartha Ramakrishna, a Bangalore-based branding professional, accepted and performed the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, for which he was nominated by two of his friends. He filmed it and put it up on Facebook. He then nominated two of his friends and his mother to participate in the challenge. “I took up the ALS challenge, after considerable reading up, to donate to a cause I believe needed the money for research and treatment,” he says. “I also paid $10 on the ALS foundation’s website.”

Ramakrishna isn’t alone. Apart from mere mortals, celebrities such as Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake, Sarah Palin, Morgan Freeman, and closer to home, Bipasha Basu and Siddharth Malhotra, amongst others, have joined in on the fun.

The Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC), which went viral on Facebook, has garnered $94.3 million in donations. “We didn’t start or promote/market the challenge. It was initiated and grew virally,” says Greg Cash, Communications Director, ALS Foundation.

Viral spiral

For the uninitiated, the challenge involves dumping a bucket of ice water on one’s head to promote awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and encourage donations to research. It went viral on social media during July-August 2014. The challenge warrants that nominated participants be filmed having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads and then nominate at least three others to do the same. A common stipulation is that nominated participants have 24 hours to comply or forfeit. In one version of the challenge, the participant is expected to donate $10 if they have poured the ice water over their head or donate $100 if they have not. In another version, dumping the ice water over one’s head is done sans any donation.

Not everybody is gung-ho about the challenge, though. While some argue that this last version promotes ‘slacktivism’, others feel it’s a waste of water, an already scarce resource, and have boycotted the challenge. For instance, Bollywood actor Sonakshi Sinha, instead of dumping a bucket full of cold water put a single ice cube on her head. The message: Stop wasting water and just donate for the cause.

Hollywood actor Matt Damon, who is passionate about safe water and sanitation, used toilet water to do the IBC. But this hasn’t stopped people from taking the challenge.

It has gone on to inspire politically and socially motivated spin-offs such as the Gaza Rubble Bucket Challenge (to focus attention on Gaza’s most recent travails, the Hamas Vs Hummus Challenge (to garner support for the soldiers of the Israel Defence Force in defending the people of both Israel and Gaza from the Hamas) and India’s Rice Bucket Challenge (RBC).

The RBC seems to be going from strength to strength. Manjulatha Kalanidhi, started this challenge as she thought it was necessary and relevant to the Indian situation. (See accompanying box.) A host of individuals and institutions have taken it up.

So, why are the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and some of its spin-offs as successful as they are? Harish Iyer, Vice-President (HR) at Meru Cabs, the brains behind participating in the Rice Bucket Challenge, says through a charitable trust called the Meru Foundation, they donated a month’s supply of rice and other commodities to Prem Sadan, in Madh Island, Mumbai which gives shelter and growth opportunities to girls aged 6-18.

The firm’s CEO Siddhartha Pahwa says he has not seen business causes gain the same kind of virality that social causes spawn. “Any social cause has the potential to go viral as society is getting connected 24x7. Good messages get picked up very fast. If marketers associate with social causes not only at the transaction level but at the internal level then social media can help promote the brand as well,” he says.

Recipe for success

“The reason behind doing the video is both social and useful, and research suggests that messages that are socially useful, that teach something new, have viral potential,” says David Dubois, Assistant Professor, Marketing, at INSEAD’s Fontainebleau campus.

To spread effectively, a message has to answer the question ‘Why would I share this message?’ (as opposed to ‘Why I would buy this product?’ (like it is for a classic ad). “Typically, people answer this question positively: Because it makes me look good and/or because it would be useful to the message recipient; will it help my friends to save money, improve relationships, or make things better? For instance, consider this 8-million-views video teaching message recipients how to shuck corn better – eight million people for corn!”

According to Dubois, in the case of ASL, it is clearly socially important and desirable to spread information about the disease as well as show that you personally care.

Apart from this, the message has to be both provocative, and easy to do (pouring water on yourself is a gesture you can easily execute, is uncommon and can be easily done). “This is consistent with research that suggests that provocative messages tend to spread a lot. Overall, the combination of a purposeful message (raising money for a good cause) and fun way of execution is a winning formula for triggering virality,” he says.

Fear of missing out

For Wharton School’s Jonah Berger, a Professor of Marketing who studies the science behind viral content: “People want to look good to others, so it’s hard to turn down a pro-social cause.” He elaborates: “People might also be making the decision to share the video based on a need for social validation. People share things that make them look good, that make them look smart and in the know,” he says. “People don’t want to be left out. Anytime you’re at a cocktail party and someone is talking about something, whether it’s a brand or a new band, you don’t want to be the only person in the group who has no idea what they’re talking about,” he adds.

However, Berger also believes that some of the people who have taken the challenge don’t know a lot about ALS. “Ideally, you would love everybody who finds out about this challenge to become more aware of the disease, not just donate, not just take part in the easy aspect of it,” he says. “That said, if you are increasing donations and if at least some portion of the people who take this challenge become more aware of this disease, I think it’s good for the ALS Association at the end of the day.”

He also feels the challenges turned viral because it’s easy to see other people doing this, and show them that you are as well, whereas with most social causes donations are private. Group M’s Vineet Karnik, National Director, groupm esp, the entertainment, sports and cause marketing consultancy, says the popularity of the IBC or any social media marketing plan, lies in the genuineness of the cause. It shouldn’t smack of obvious marketing, and should help the audience to participate freely, without riders like ‘buy our product’ to participate. Group M’s campaign ‘The Power of 49’, for Tata Tea, he says, is one such example because it spoke of women’s empowerment and their potential to choose the right leader, and not about a product. An honest cause will definitely rub off positively on the brand supporting it, he adds.

“The one thing right that it did was add the peer angle to it … nominate three others. With this, they successfully tapped into the viral effect and managed to create the domino effect,” says Ankita Gaba, Co-Founder, SocialSamosa, a social media content portal.

“Video is the most consumed form of media in the current times and hence video marketing is the best approach to make a campaign go viral,” says Zafar Rais, Founder and CEO, MindShift Interactive, a digital marketing agency. “The success of the IBC can be attributed to the fact that it was taken by a lot of celebrities and influential personalities across the world, which favoured the campaign to become a trend amongst youngsters on the social media,” he adds.

However, INSEAD’s Dubois feels the challenge could have done some things better.

“First, make the cause behind the message more salient. A lot of people remember the IBC, only some donated (given the large number of views) but less clear is how many people remembered the ALS association as a brand name and perhaps more importantly, how many people remember the disease itself” he says. “Second, it is interesting that they decoupled the act of making the video and the act of donating. Those who donate are those who do not contribute to spreading the word. People active on social media are more likely to further act on whatever they are communicating. I would imagine ASL might have been very successful at further leveraging the enthusiasm behind the donations, that is, make people who did the video engage further by donating time or money,” he adds.

It has gone on to inspire politically and socially motivated spin-offs such as the Gaza Rubble Bucket Challenge and the Hamas vs Hummus Challenge.