Can we do one of those ice bucket things?

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Successful social media campaigns are a bit of a double-edged sword for communication professionals. It’s fun to watch them spark, and they frequently give us ideas we can replicate (steal) for our companies, organizations or clients.

But they also lead to the inevitable “we want to launch a campaign that will go viral like (insert last successful campaign name here)” request.

A few years back, it was the yellow LiveStrong bracelet. For some reason, that request has quieted down.

Now we have the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which, by almost any measure, has been a blockbuster success. My kids did it. I did it. Do you know a family that didn’t have at least one person take the challenge?

Everyone’s developing lists of why it worked. Here’s mine.

It was fun and funny.

It contained an element of competition.

It was easy to do and share.

But here’s why I’m skeptical that other fun, competitive and easy campaigns won’t necessarily yield the same results (at least reliably).

You can’t capture lightning in a bottle. This campaign came out of nowhere and exploded. We can look back and pick the things we think made it successful, but they’re guesses. Not only that, but it was accidental lightning. There was no master strategy. The campaign was a fluke and wasn’t even launched by ALSA. How do you replicate something that wasn’t even planned and wasn’t attached to a cause when it started?

The Internet hasn’t changed the rules of social epidemics; it has amplified them. Fifteen years ago, Malcolm Gladwell got famous for quantifying the so-called Tipping Point of social trends. He named three critical components for such epidemics — Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople. And famous people are among the best examples of all three. A yellow bracelet? Not genius. A pink ribbon? Ditto. Both of those campaigns had amazing star power and marketing budgets behind them, in addition to being a way for you and me to show our support for a good cause.

The same is true of the Ice Bucket Challenge. We’ll never know if the challenge would have spread without Justin Timberlake,  Jimmy Fallon or the other celebrities that joined in, but it would be crazy to discount the impact that star power has on so-called grass roots campaigns. (Tip: If you’re planning a viral video, you should have a “How we will get JT to promote our video” strategy.)

Finally, will it stick? We won’t know for months, but I suspect that ALSA’s donations will come back down to earth. Will awareness of ALS stay high? Did understanding of ALS and the challenges faced by people with the disease really increase at all? If so, will it stick? I suspect someone in grad school is going to write a thesis on the lasting impact of the Ice Bucket Challenge. I can’t wait to read it.

Until then, I’m counting the days until a client asks me “Can we do one of those ice bucket things?”




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