The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took the world by storm in July and August of 2014 and generated huge returns for the ALS Association.

The challenge? If you are nominated, donate money to the ALS Association or have a bucket of ice water dumped on your head…in front of a video camera.

The challenge started locally, but had all the makings of a viral hit, and that’s exactly what it became. Over a million videos were shared on Facebook, the campaign received over two million Twitter mentions, and the Wikipedia article reached up to 430,000 views in a single day. The ALS Association doubled its 2012 donations in less than a month.

Ice cubes

Naturally, every marketer would love to replicate these results. So if we want to come close with our own advertising, what can we take away from this viral campaign?

1. Gamify for Best Results

Part of what made this go viral was the element of “gamification.” This term is often used in app marketing and software design, and it refers to the addition of game elements to an app design. For instance, adding a point system, ranking systems, and other competitive elements would be considered gamification.

In this case, the challenge itself was a simple truth-or-dare type mechanism: either take the ice water on the head or donate to charity.

What does it reveal when someone is nominated but refuses to take the challenge?

2. Social Stigma is a Great Penalty for Non-Participation

People refusing to take the challenge or to donate suffer a social stigma. This reason alone is compelling enough to make people feel guilty about not taking the challenge.

Not taking the challenge, in other words, isn’t really an option. Some celebrities and famous people refused, citing legitimately objectionable reasons, but they were few and far between.

The social stigma is closely associated with the cause-marketing that drove this campaign.

3. Cause-Market If You Can

If the cause is altruistic, then people will feel a natural moral obligation to help promote it. In this case, people felt morally obligated to support the ALS Association’s cause, which added yet another viral mechanism to the campaign.

This isn’t the only example of cause-marketing in action. Some of the most successful viral campaigns have drawn on good causes to help promote their brands. Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign is one successful example of a campaign that related its products to a good cause: tackling the esteem issues associated with women’s self image.

4. Incorporate Social Currency

Everyone else is doing it, so you should too. This is the essence of viral marketing. This relates closely to the gamification, social stigma, and cause-marketing concepts.

People who do take the challenge will feel a sense of accomplishment, which helps add peer pressure to those who don’t. This pride gives people yet another reason to take the challenge.

5. Vanity Sharing Works

The Ice Bucket Challenge came under criticism for being narcissism disguised as altruism. Regardless of the truth of that statement or its ethical implications, there is an element of “vanity sharing” that helped promote the campaign.

Due to the sense of pride and self-accomplishment in completing the challenge – and due to the fact that it has to be recorded on video – people were more compelled to share their challenge on social media. 

6. Keep it Simple

The challenge worked because it was simple. It’s easy to understand and easy to do. This particular campaign has all the elements of a child’s game, and is easy for both participants and observers to understand.

Simplicity is another essential element to successful viral campaigns. Funny cat videos, Roller Babies, viral contests, and other similar campaigns satisfied short attention spans and incorporated humor, which made them ideal for sharing.

7. Incorporate Humor

As mentioned above, humor is another essential element that propelled the social sharing of these challenges. People have to actually want to watch the challenges, and humor is something that is entertaining. And it accommodates short attention spans.

What We Can Learn About Ads

Successful viral ads, such as Old Spice’s “I’m on a horse” commercial or the Dove campaign mentioned above, incorporate some or most of these elements. Advertisements, while not incorporating social currency elements, can still incorporate causes, humor, simplicity, and other essential storytelling elements.

And storytelling is perhaps one of the essential ingredients to a viral campaign. The more a campaign is able to compact a story into a tiny, entertaining package, the more likely it is to be virally shared.

And, as every marketer knows, authentic recommendations are one of the most powerful tools in an advertiser’s arsenal.

Many campaigns go viral by accident. Reproducing a viral advertising campaign takes lots of research and work. But when you include social mechanisms that compel sharing, and when you are able to tell a compact, entertaining story, you increase the chances of success.