The Ice Bucket Challenge and social media virality

For a cause to go viral, it has to garner widespread interest from enough members of a diversity of tribes, not just one. Kymberly Janisch

The news that broke last night of the accidental death of the Ice Bucket Challenge pioneer, Corey Griffin, has come as a shock.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, where people film themselves or friends dumping a bucket of ice on themselves and then donate money to a charitable cause, became a worldwide phenomenon this week.

Griffin’s social-media-savvy challenge has already raised millions of dollars for work on motor-neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s) in North America and the UK. Inspired by their success, other countries have taken it up to similar effect for causes such as cancer research.

There’s plenty of competition for the attention of social media users, so what can we learn from the extraordinary success of the Ice Bucket Challenge? How can charities use social media and crowdfunding tools to raise money?

Step one: understanding social media trends

Trends in social media come and go. Some of these trends last no longer than a few weeks, while others eventually become permanent fixtures of online interactions. These trends can be looked at from three different perspectives: organisational, personal and community.

Bill Gates films the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

From the organisational perspective, social media trends refer to practices such as online brand and reputation management, crowdsourcing for product development and rewarding customers for tagging, blogging or photographing their experiences using the products or services.

From a more personal perspective, some social media trends that encourage users to participate in an “online movement” are more self-oriented such as:

  • “[planking](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planking_(fad)” (photos of people lying flat in unexpected or incongruous positions);

  • photo bombing” (the act of purposely or accidentally placing oneself in someone else’s photo);

  • selfies” (taking photos of the self and sharing it online);

  • duckface” (a subtype of the “selfie” where one takes photos of the self with really pouty lips made to look like a duckbill).

Third, there are community trends such as the Ice Bucket Challenge that seek to galvanise the community into action on various issues and crowd-fund independent causes or charities.

Going viral - what do we know?

There is one similarity between all these trends. At some point, they have all gone viral – hundreds of thousands of people (the crowd) either watch or participate in the activity across the world.

Planking in Pamplona, July 2011. EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

The question of what goes viral and what doesn’t really depends on the context – and on the whims of the crowd. While marketers and researchers have spent a lot of their time trying to work out a formula for what makes something go viral, the crowd ultimately gets to determine what becomes a trend.

The challenge, of course, is that the crowd can be fickle. From a research point of view, while some factors might increase the chances of something going viral, it is actually easier to prove what factors will lead to something not going viral. Why is this the case?

The wisdom of the tribe

Social media is a highly democratic human system.

Theoretically, once someone is in the system, they can participate equally. Social media users can share their opinions relatively freely (subject to the laws of their country). They can access any information they want and share what they like – such as invitations to participate in charity events or to contribute to a fundraising campaign.

However, like all democracies, although people may have the right to participate equally, the reality is that they do not do so. In the case of social media, access to technology, digital literacy and, most likely of all, personal interest all affect participation.

NASA’s #GlobalSelfie: 100+ countries, thousands of photos. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre

Crucially, social media is a tribal environment in which people gravitate towards others who have similar interests or worldviews. These tribes can choose to be as informed or as misinformed as they like.

For a cause to go viral, it has to garner widespread interest from enough members of a diversity of tribes, not just one.

To some extent, this depends on the appeal of the message. Messages that are too long and complex are unlikely to garner support. Research shows that causes that may be stigmatising also turn off supporters. Accessibility is a question: if a cause is difficult to contribute to or is presented in an inaccessible manner, it’s unlikely to go viral.

In hindsight, the Ice Bucket Challenge ticked all the right boxes.

It had an important message that was clearly articulated - raising money for charity.

It was accessible and easy to get involved - thanks to the smartphones and simple video-sharing on social media.

It was presented with humour and levity – people watched peers, celebrities and strangers get doused with icy water.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing and “going viral” is not an exact science. Many well-organised campaigns don’t reach a broader audience. Not every campaign will meet the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. It may be more realistic for campaigners to aim for a more humble target audience and seek to win over just one tribe.

Even so, Griffin’s project has shown what’s possible when all the elements for a winning social media campaign come together – even the fickle crowd.