What We Can Learn from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge


If you’ve been on social media or watched the news at all in the last couple of weeks, you’re no stranger to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that is truly defining the term "viral." For those that are unfamiliar or still aren’t totally sure what these videos are all about, here’s the gist:

ALS is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig's Disease. This is “a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.” The ALS Association is the national non-profit organization behind the fight for finding a cure for the disease through research, education and public policy. In an effort to raise awareness and funds to support research for the disease, the Ice Bucket Challenge was born. “The challenge involves people getting doused with buckets of ice water on video, posting that video to social media, then nominating others to do the same, all in an effort to raise ALS awareness. Those who refuse to take the challenge are asked to make a donation to the ALS charity of their choice.”

When I first saw the videos cropping up on my news feed, I’ll be honest, I didn't pay too much attention. I figured it was an awareness campaign and knew it was for ALS, but didn't bother to investigate what that disease is or what throwing ice on your head meant. I kept some tabs on this over the last couple of weeks as I saw more friends and family posting their videos, and began taking note of all the athletes, celebrities and brands also participating. It wasn’t until last week when I was nominated to do the challenge, and then try to explain it to my non-social-media-using friends that I needed to learn more. So, I did my research, made a donation (disclaimer: because I didn't have the ice or time to complete it within 24 hours) and haven’t been able to stop tracking the conversation since! I’m truly fascinated by the momentum and think there are some key takeaways we PR/marketing pros can learn from it.

Awareness campaigns are meant for social. As a PR professional, I look at this campaign and am instantly jealous of whoever does PR for The ALS Association. With this campaign, the stories are practically writing themselves. That’s not to minimize the coordination and efforts on their end, but the nature of social media is really the secret ingredient behind the way this challenge has organically grown. It’s pretty cool.

Celebrities, they’re just like us. The celebrity and big brand involvement has been a huge part of the success of this campaign. From Justin Timberlake and Martha Stewart, to Oprah and Mark Zuckerberg (the list seriously goes on and on), public icons are doing the same challenge that your average Joe is doing in his backyard – and people love it. Their participation no doubt plays a role in validating to fans that this is an important issue and people should pay attention.

This brings me, however, to my big question/concern about the challenge.

Now you’re freezing, so what? This challenge is talked about as an awareness campaign, but the end goal has to be funding for the Association. By the sounds of what The ALS Association shared on there press room today, they’re doing amazing (up to $15.6 million in donations compared to $1.8 million during the same time period last year). Still, I’d be curious to know the stats on what portion of the people posting their Ice Bucket Challenge videos, celebrities and brands included, are taking the time to visit the ALS site or are making a donation. Stories like this Buzzfeed article prove that some people are missing it completely (or just embarrassing themselves).

If you are interested in learning more, I would encourage you to visit The ALS Association site (donate if you feel so inclined), but also check out the SportsCenter piece on Pete Frates and his fight against ALS. I caught it last night by accident and it helped me understand where this challenge started, and what it has the potential to do. It even inspired this blog post.