What Ice Buckets Teach Us About The Spread of Ideas


Actors, sports figures, musicians, and even a former United States President have been doused in ice-cold water in recent days.  If you haven’t witnessed this, you may be enjoying a summer on a remote island with no connection to any media.  For those of us who have watched this phenomenon take off, we may ask what lessons we can all learn from it all.

Why did this take off?  What is it about this campaign that made people act?



The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is for a meaningful purpose: to raise money to find a cure for a devastating and fatal disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The financial results are stunning.  If the challenge were not tied directly to a bigger purpose, it would have failed.  Not many people would participate without an important cause.  It’s hard to turn down a challenge with a purpose.



Technology has changed everything.  It’s easy to record a video, upload it to a social media account, and see what happens.  The video brings multiple senses and emotions into play.  We can see our friends’ reaction to the water; we can almost feel the cold of the ice; we hear the laughter in the background.  It’s a powerful multi-sensory appeal.  When you add the emotional appeal of the cause, the call to action becomes almost irresistible.



The challenge has a uniquely personal appeal.  One person challenges others to join in.  Instead of merely forwarding an email or sharing something on social media, it demands participation.  That’s where it becomes uniquely personal.  If this challenge were a cookie-cutter replication, it would not spread.  It’s the personal spin that draws us in.  Bill Gates didn’t just have water thrown on him; he sat down and designed a better way to execute.  The personality of each participant shines through.



Most charitable giving is done in private.  That’s fine as far as giving goes, but this campaign upended traditional methods.  This challenge is not hidden from view.  Anyone uncomfortable with the public nature of it has an out: You can donate $100 instead.  But the public call is part-challenge, part-dare, and it evokes the competitive spirit.  There’s a unique aspect to the public component.  Instead of simply publicly experiencing the ice bucket, the participant then calls out individuals by name.  That starts a chain-letter like effect, but in the public eye.



You may think that negative spreads faster than positive.  That has been the traditional approach in newsrooms.  The advent of social media upended this belief.  Jonah Berger’s research shows in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On that people more often share good news than bad news in their social media accounts.  The Ice Bucket Challenge is positive, uplifting, and often funny.  If the message were only about the horrific consequences of the disease, it would not be shared in this way.  The positive aspect of this challenge has people sharing it at much higher rates.


As you look to build a marketing campaign, share an idea, achieve a goal or have a lasting impact, take the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Make sure that you are sharing an idea that is purposeful, powerful, personal, public, and positive.  If you do, you will find success significantly faster than if you are the opposite:  unclear, weak, anonymous, private, and negative.

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