Viral Marketing: Dissecting the Ice Bucket Challenge

      Whether they’re shocking, emotional, or aesthetically pleasing, viral campaigns that cause an online chain-reaction across various social networks are becoming more and more common. Their existence for the promotion of for-profit goods and services can be justified and explained quite easily, but is it the same for the non-profit sector? Due to budget cuts and growing competition for donors, an environment where non-profit companies must act like their profit-driven counterparts if they wish to survive has been created. Since marketing is traditionally used by firms to improve their bottom line, the challenge for non-profits is adapting the techniques to their needs. They must seek to appeal to clients, donors, and volunteers simultaneously, while communicating a well-crafted message (Parker, Watcher, Sloan, Ghomi, 2016).

      A well-known example of non-profit viral marketing is the Ice Bucket Challenge. As Samsunulu and Bas explain, this 2014 challenge was launched by CoreyGriffin in order to raise awareness of ALS and increase the foundation’s annual funding (Samsunlu and Bas, 2016). The campaign raised over $115 million and certainly changed how the world looks at viral campaigns (Wiley Company, 2014). The astonishing spread of this campaign taught marketers that social media users are looking to be in dialogue with each other, rather than in monologue (Samsunlu and Bas, 2016). In other words, they seek an active way to communicate with their peers and appreciate opportunities that allow for two-way conversations. The “challenge” aspect is also important because it makes the campaign exciting for users and rewards their participation by offering a sense of pride and accomplishment.

A group of people performing the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s clearly an exciting experience for them.

   According to Wiley Company, a great deal of the campaign’s popularity can be attributed to accessibility. There were no restrictions for getting involved, because the videos could be shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where most people were active. Simply put, the initiative wasn’t targeting a specific market, but rather encouraging people of all genders, ages, and locations to join (Wiley Company, 2014). Another key to their success was the simplicity of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Anyone, from a regular person to a celebrity, could nominate friends and post a video online, needing just a freezer with ice, a bucket, and a recording device. Finally, a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic pressure, called “translational impact” by University of Cambridge is important, shifting people’s mindsets from online support to sustained real world contributions (University of Cambridge, 2017).

      Like any viral campaign, the Ice Bucket Challenge was only a temporary solution to a long-term goal of increasing consumer awareness through digital media use. Unlike their for-profit counterparts, the focus is on educating consumers and encouraging donations, rather than on sales. There is also no tangible benefit for consumers when they give money to non-profit companies, meaning that the company’s message must be crafted in way that communicates what the consumer gains from the transaction (Parker, Watcher, Sloan, Ghomi, 2016). Finally, a clear call to action is necessary so that consumers don’t passively see the campaign and move on afterwards. However, the core principles remain the same: allow customers to create a dialogue with each other, while spreading the company’s message along the way.

     With this new form of marketing come many challenges, both in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. The company essentially loses control over the message by allowing users to spread it. Yet, what counterbalances this is the drastic decrease in marketing costs because viral marketing can drastically decrease the costs of promoting the brand and increase the speed of adoption (Parker, Watcher, Sloan, Ghomi, 2016). The greatest challenge, predictably, is designing a viral marketing campaign that will actually become viral. As mentioned in the previous post, there is no recipe that guarantees success. A variety of research exists on the topic, but companies take a significant risk every time they attempt to launch a viral campaign.

   The Ice Bucket Challenge certainly had a wide impact on the marketing field, demonstrating how a non-profit brand can utilize social media for promotion. The lesson to learn here is not that your company ought to mimic the challenge, because there is no plan to copy that will guarantee success (Dewey, 2017). As shown by numerous firms that tried to recreate the challenge, even if all the characteristics that made it so popular are present, it will likely not work. While it’s uncertain if another non-for-profit organization will be able to achieve this level of success, it is important for these companies to continue pushing the boundaries of marketing.


Dewey, C. (2017). Will there ever be another Ice Bucket Challenge?. Washington Post. Retrieved 1 April 2017, from

Parker, H., Watcher, K., Sloan, H., Ghomi, V. Viral marketing in the nonprofit sector: crafting messages that create awareness and call an audience to action. Marketing Management Journal, 2016, 101-116.

Samsunlu, G., Bas, M. Viral marketing developing with social media streams and research about ice bucket challenge viral campaign. Journal of Internet Applications and Management, 2016(7), 45-55.

University of Cambridge,. (2017). Psychological ‘recipe’ identified for viral campaigns such as Ice Bucket Challenge. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 2 April 2017, from

Wiley Company,. (2014). The Ice Bucket Challenge: Viral campaigns can bring in millions but require careful preparation. Nonprofit Business Advisor, 2014(302), 1-3.


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