Why is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge so popular?

Thousands of promotional campaigns are released everyday. In fact, many are well-known social causes yet people fail to act on the message. Then why did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge succeed where others failed?

To begin with, this campaign’s design successfully employs the STICKY framework, and some fundamental principles from decision-making and consumer psychology.

Decision-making: Most campaigns target one primary action – buy this phone, donate some money, subscribe to this magazine, etc.  But our mind loves to create choice, and hence decides between two choices – to do it or not to do it. And most of the time we will take the existing and predictable path which is NOT to do something. The ALS campaign has two primary actions and a third combined action so we decide between these 3 choices and never create the “not to do it” choice.

1. Take the Ice bucket challenge and donate $10 to the cause
2. Donate $100 and skip the ice
3. Do both

Social decision-making: The third subtle choice of doing both (which is the popular choice) is powerful because you get the social benefits, the self-gratification, and you don’t imply that you did it just to save some money. No one wants their friends to think they’re either stingy or meek. Our behaviors in private are very different from those in social situations. The video post challenging 3 people has transformed this idea from the private decision-making domain to the social decision-making domain. This technique will push people to do something they normally would not do on their own.

Simple: We all have access to some ice, water, a bucket and a smartphone. We already love shooting selfies and short videos. In fact we are usually out of idea,s and behaviorally speaking we’re always looking out for a idea to post about. This gives us a simple idea to perform where we are doing something that’s interesting, affiliating us to good, and hence indirectly self-promoting. Very aligned with natural social (online) user behavior.

Unexpected: Normally we never do this, and this is the first video where you will see this person (famous or not) in this peculiar way.

Concrete: Extremely visual and easy to remember.  We can almost imagine and feel the chill of ice water on our skin even without doing the challenge.

Credible: This is associated to a social cause so the campaign has more meaning to it beyond the ice water. It’s main intention is not to get you wet but to help you donate to the ALS Association, or find three others who can donate. Given this premise the idea starts out with some decent credibility. The credibility soared over time, with each person who takes the challenge because of network effects. Once it reached the famous folks, its credibility grew exponentially.

Emotional (& funny): We all need to feel an emotion to adopt a concept or spread it. This idea was not emotional in the traditional sense (one could not understand ALS or relate to those who suffer). However, the emotion of taking the challenge, and joining a community of challenge-takers was emotion enough to push the idea forward. Research has proved that ideas that makes us feel happy and positive spread faster than those that make us feel sad. This could have been a campaign highlighting the illness but it chose to focus on making people laugh which is powerful too.

Stories: The video was a brilliant way to bring a simple story to life – a friend taking the challenge and nominating three others.  Extremely aligned to social networks where a story spreads without effort. And if you’re the type of person who rarely opens your Facebook page, you would still hear someone tell you “Hey, did you see your friend taking the challenge with his 5-year old helping him fill the ice”.

Attention Span: A small point in the overall success but could have killed the idea if not done right. We have 10 second attention spans and pouring a bucket of ice water on your head takes less than 10 seconds. Of course, if you’re a famous person you can stretch the video and that’s good for the campaign. But for most of us, we always have 10 seconds to watch a friend do something, and we need these quick conversation bites to share with those physically around us. You’re not expected to read a blog, or listen to a talk, or deploy any of your scare cognitive resources. Just watch and laugh and share.

Why 3 and not 5? Not too small to not spread fast enough. Not too large to make me think. Beyond our immediate family (those we live with), most of us have 3-4 people who we feel comfortable nominating for something crazy (unless you’re a celebrity where you can pick on anyone). Creating a list of 5 folks or even 5 email addresses requires some extra thinking. Most people quickly find 3 others and then struggle with too many similar choices in our long list of 200 Facebook friends.

Universal: This is slightly different from just being a “simple” idea. Universal is not about access to doing the idea but the ability to relate to it no matter where we are, how much we earn, or how happy we are. Bill Gates’s needs are no different from you or me at a human level, and he faces the same mortality. When designing a global message, the following universal needs really matter:

humor and sharing a laugh
enjoying being challenged
taking one’s tiny revenge by challenging others
bring part of a cause for doing good
and finally, just feeling happy about breaking the routine in an interesting way

The simple truth of good marketing is that people cannot help acting when messages are behaviorally aligned to how we love to be.  It’s no surprise that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is powerful and viral to the core.

Watch these folks and don’t forget to laugh. :)

 Bill Gates ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,


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