What the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Can Teach Us About Content Marketing

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Some 60% of B2C marketers plan to increase their content marketing budget this year according to a study by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. But it’s not enough to just create content anymore; success lies in creating content that engages your audience and motivates them to spread the word.

So the search is on for a “formula” that gets people sharing, and any brand or cause that succeeds is worth learning from.

The most recent success story: the ALS ice bucket challenge. If you somehow haven’t seen it on your Facebook feed (or on Good Morning America or the Today show), here’s how the challenge works: People post videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice water over their heads to raise awareness and donations for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease); they then challenge friends to dump water on themselves or donate $ 100 to the cause.

When I first heard of the campaign, I thought it was silly at best and inappropriate at worst. My grandfather died of ALS four years ago, and as a self-described cynic I was quick to write the challenge off. But after doing some research, and learning that the ALS Association collected $ 5.7 million in donations within two weeks (almost five times the amount earned during the same timeframe last year), I was ready to give it a second chance.

The truth is, the campaign is raising awareness and funds to fight a debilitating disease. It’s also a great case study for content marketers looking to capture the attention of their audiences.

Three Lessons (or Reminders)

Here are three things this particular phenomenon can teach us (or at least remind us) about content marketing.

1. It’s unique, simple, and just crazy enough

Who doesn’t want to see their friends getting “tortured?” The ALS #icebucketchallenge feels like a good-natured clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos or a prank pulled on YouTube. But it’s done with the user’s consent, it is extremely entertaining to watch, and it has a great follow-up message.

Along with its lightheartedness, the #icebucketchallenge is also very simple. Bucket, ice, hashtag, post. No entering, no email, no external sites. Low commitment is extremely important if you’re trying to get a large number of people involved.

It’s also a new way of “going viral.” Instead of one piece of great content being shared over and over, each video is viral within that participant’s immediate circle, and the videos are linked by a simple, memorable hashtag. Instead of becoming a meme, it began as one.

And who had this brilliant idea in the first place? The originator of the campaign wasn’t some evil marketing consultant on behalf of the ALS Association. It was started by Peter Frates, a former Boston College baseball player living with ALS.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this ice storm is that people like to interact with people—not organizations.

2. It hits both ends of the sad-to-happy emotional spectrum

Although ALS is nothing to laugh about, it’s hard getting people to share content when the air of a campaign is all doom and gloom. People want to be a positive force in their community, and they like to have fun.

Some people are comparing the challenge to a modern-day bake sale. Do cookies and brownies have anything to do with refurbishing your local church or raising money for a school baseball team? Not really, but they get people excited to help out.

Many of us revert to pulling on consumer heartstrings for emotional messages, and it usually works (see the Dove real beauty campaign or those heart-crushing commercials with Sarah McLachlan). The ALS #icebucketchallenge is a refreshing (no pun intended) reminder that people are just as likely to act when you make them laugh.

And, in the end, when you’re freezing cold and drenching wet, you are still left with the warm feeling that you made a difference. Not a bad emotional mix for a 10-second video.

3. The call to action is fun and free

Although donations are encouraged, there is no part of this campaign that demands users buy or give up personal information to participate. The only thing it stipulates is “pour water over your head or donate.”

Theoretically, that approach could have backfired tremendously if everyone participated but no one donated. However, it seems “just raising awareness” can be enough: The ALS Association reports a 1,000% spike in donations to the national office in the 10-day period ended Thursday, August 7—up from $ 14,500 (during the equivalent period a year earlier) to $ 160,000. 

A Final Lesson

Unfortunately, as hard as we might try, the vast majority of our content will never approach virality. Only 6% of Upworthy posts have reached 100,000 views, and only 0.42% have surpassed 1 million, according to the viral content experts at Upworthy.

Virality is hard. But content marketers can look to examples like the ALS challenge to create and promote content that their audience will appreciate.

My guess is that the ALS #icebucketchallenge is going to spawn many knockoffs this year. But—and you heard it here first—they will never catch on like this one did. How many of us are still jealous of the interest garnered by the Dove campaign (and how many failed copycats followed)?

So, the final lesson for marketers is this: The trick isn’t to copy or mimic a great campaign; it’s to learn from it and incorporate the lessons into future ideas.

The #icebucketchallenge is fun, it’s for a good cause, it has perfect timing, it doesn’t feel corporate, and it’s new. Here’s hoping that it and others like it will help us all make better use of those increased content marketing budgets in the coming year.

MarketingProfs All In One

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