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Product launch lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

September 1, 2014

Celebrities, actors, footballer, musicians, and even a former United States President have been doused in buckets of ice-cold water in recent weeks. If you haven’t witnessed this on social media then you must be a hermit tucked up on a remote cave without wifi connection. If you haven’t had a bucket of ice water dunked on your head yourself, it’s safe to assume that at least a dozen of your friends have.

For me, I am fascinated by the way things go viral these days, and seek to understand why did this take off, what is it about this campaign that made people act, and what does it tells us about collaboration, community building and communication for our business, specifically new products and ideas?

The Ice Bucket Challenge, the campaign to raise awareness for disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a fatal neurodegenerative disorder often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous baseball player went public with his diagnosis in 1939, has become a cultural movement.

The challenge dares nominated participants to be filmed having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads and challenging others to do the same. Within 24 hours of being challenged, participants have to record a video of themselves. First, they have to announce their acceptance of the challenge followed by calling out the challenge to other people, then the bucket is lifted and emptied over the participant’s head. Then the participant can scream.

What started as a generic summer charity challenge turned into an ALS-focused campaign in late July, when members of the Boston College community and ‘Team FrateTrain’ adopted the practice as a creative way to raise awareness in the Boston area of college alumnus of former captain of the baseball team Pete Frates’s battle against the devastating disease. Because these groups overlapped, they created a domino effect that quickly spread throughout New England and led to national exposure.

More than 1.2m videos of the challenge were posted on Facebook between June 1 and August 13, and there were 2.2 million mentions on Twitter between July 29 and August 17. It’s the Harlem Shake of this summer. After the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on social media, public awareness and charitable donations to ALS charities soared. The New York Times reported that the ALS Association had received $42m in donations from July 29 to August 21, compared to the $64m total contributions the association received in 2013.

While the nature of the challenge is fun and supporting a good cause, a number of criticisms have arisen relating to the campaign, accusing it of being self-congratulatory, focusing primarily on fun rather than donating money to charity, and as an example of substituting a trivial activity for more genuine involvement in charitable activities. Some of the critics say that people are just being narcissistic attention seekers, and aren’t putting enough attention on the cause behind the challenge.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Willard Foxton described the challenge as ‘a middle-class wet-T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists’, referring to clicktivism. Celebrities’ videos generally forget to share donation information for ALS. Of the videos I have viewed, only Charlie Sheen and Bill Gates noted that the point is to donate money.

So why has this phenomenon taken off, what made people act, and what are the lessons we can draw for the launch of a new product or idea? Here are ten thoughts that I’ve had around this summer’s global craze, relevant to business.

Have a clear Purpose The Ice Bucket Challenge is for a meaningful purpose: to raise money to find a cure for a devastating and fatal disease. The financial results are stunning, but 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. Make the purpose of your business clear.

Harness the zeitgeist In an environment when almost everyone has their social network attached to their hip at all times, videos showing the harmless public humiliation of your friends were bound to catch fire. Active social media users were sucked in immediately, and peer pressure reeled in the reluctant souls. Everyone can curate content and become a broadcaster via our connected smartphones. None of this would have been possible ten years ago.

Time it right The challenge got underway in June and peaked in August. Its timing was perfect and it was a feel-good counterpoint to the images of violence in the Middle East that have dominated the daily news. Summer is a time for holidays and many of us enjoy a more relaxed work schedule. School is out and extended hours of sunlight allowed people to participate in the challenge and video their soaking, plus, the nature of the challenge matched the timing – an Ice Bucket Challenge would not have been well received in winter. Anyone want pneumonia?

Have a clear call to action Videos of people dumping ice water on their heads will catch attention, the story behind the video is what has everyone hooked. Most people have a bucket, a smartphone, and a social media account and just when you thought the videos became old and boring, people got creative, and it became even more entertaining. In business terms, this is an opportunity to connect and converse with, not at your consumers.

Play to your customer personalities The Ice Bucket Challenge plays on many of the personality traits that emerge when using social media. It encourages a competitive spirit, with each participant trying to make their video more amusing, absurd or outrageous than the last. It also plays on the fact people often have narcissistic tendencies on their own social media broadcasts and enjoy an excuse to post images and videos of themselves.

Make it personal The Ice Bucket Challenge has a hugely personal appeal. Instead of merely forwarding an email or sharing something on social media, it demands participation and that’s where it becomes uniquely personal, 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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS6ysDFTbLU. The personality of each participant shines through.

Be Social Most charitable giving is private, but this campaign is not hidden from view. The public call is part-challenge, part-dare, and it evokes the competitive spirit, and uses the fixation for using social media to tell the world what I’m doing. There’s also a unique aspect to the public component – instead of simply publicly experiencing the ice bucket, the participant then calls out individuals by name. The challenge is a perfect storm of social media, celebrity and grass-roots philanthropy, producing viral social engagement during the dog days of summer.

Be Positive The news broadcasts are full of negative news, which always seems to dominate the headlines above good news. The advent of social media upended this. 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. The Ice Bucket Challenge is positive, uplifting and funny.  If the message was solely about the devastating 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.

It also works perfectly with the guilt factor. Even if you think it’s a stupid campaign it’s hard to ignore a personal and very public nomination from a friend in the name of charity. It also embraces the community spirit of social media, rather than sponsoring someone to climb a mountain or run a marathon, everyone can get involved and feel as though they’ve done something good with their day.

Don’t forget to educate As this challenge has become a phenomenon, it’s a great example that while campaigns like this can drive immense awareness, their ability to educate and inform are far less effective. For something that is quite literally all over the Internet, how many people really know what ALS is or even stands for? The lesson to take from this is that while the initiative itself has been incredible, that’s just one part of it. Underpinning a campaign with real information to educate is vital, a key message for a new product launch.

Also, the videos are never longer than 60 seconds, which means they’re quick to watch. The lower the commitment to consume, the better your content will spread. It’s only when your audience get further down the buying cycle that you should ask them to commit more time to your content.

Be authentic On the surface, the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t necessarily something brands can evaluate, pick apart then choose to replicate. As with the #nomakeupselfie campaign for Cancer Awareness, the Ice Bucket Challenge is fuelled by the power of a good cause, combined with celebrity involvement.

Commercial ventures will struggle to capture the same level of engagement and willingness to share that’s possible for a charitable fundraising. What brands can do, however, is incorporate good causes into the heart of their marketing. If brands approach this with sincerity and aren’t simply writing cheques but working to incorporate pro-social initiatives into their overall ethos and operation, they can make a genuine and positive difference, which can be powerful and engaging to their target audience.

In contrast to the light-hearted nature of the Ice Bucket Challenge and C21st social media, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman is a critique of modern media that demystifies how television thrives, and how it has changed our view of the world. It’s a view I take from seeing some of the mass-market programme viewing figures and their impact and comments in the press. Postman offers a harsh critique (as you might guess from the title) and clearly takes the side that television has done more bad than good. Postman’s goal was to disarm the negative influences television has for influencing which ideas spread and he succeeds. If you read this book, you won’t watch television the same way again.

I’ve always held George Orwell’s dark vision of 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as books to keep close to hand, their dystopian, chilling prophesies of the future based on how we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression and biased communication of information. In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Quite chilling prophesies.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books, what Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, because there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information, Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us, Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture, Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. Again, insightful and stark future visions of our current reality. Or am I just a grumpy middle-aged man?!

Does the Ice Bucket Challenge reflect their predictions? We no longer talk to each other, we entertain each other. We do not exchange ideas, we exchange images. We do not argue with propositions, we argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. As Postman says, When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

Throughout history, ideas are often chosen for speed and convenience relative to an immediate issue, as there is little expectation the choice will matter later, but when an idea takes off, they’re hard to change no matter how bad they turn about to be, in part because we love to protect the ideas from our past. In today’s social media fuelled world, do we really have room for debate and discussion on the things that really matter, or are we in the dummed-down world envisaged by Orwell and Huxley?

Whatever your views on personalised yet mass market social media communication, good causes, forms of propaganda and if you share my cynicism articulated by Postman, the next time you are brainstorming a great marketing campaign to launch a new business product, challenge your team to think outside the box (or the ice bucket). Even the craziest ideas can take a business to a new level if they have a strong purpose, are engaging and easy, and spark conversation.

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