Jumping to Conclusions on the Ice Bucket Challenge

Posted by Tom Hespos on August 27th, 2014 at 6:38 am

If you were going to jump to a conclusion that a fundraising meme is stupid, everything about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge would have made that easy.

Outwardly, it seemed ham-handed in its approach to raising money to combat Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).  People urged one another to pour buckets of ice water over their heads in order to avoid donating to ALSA.org, and making videos of it seemed to be something that just about everybody online had an urge to do.  When sized up as a strategic marketing tactic, the Challenge appeared to be working against itself.

That wasn't the only thing people disliked about it.  Some didn't like the notion that it seemed to be driven by human narcissism.  Others wondered aloud why people seemed so eager to dump freezing water on their heads when donating seemed to be a more attractive alternative.  Still others wondered whether anybody making the videos had learned anything about ALS - what it is, and what it does to people afflicted with it.

As of this writing, I've not been formally challenged, but I will admit that when I first saw the videos beginning to build viral momentum, my immediate reaction was negative.  In a Facebook post, I linked to disease information and made a donation of my own.  And it seems I wasn't alone in having that reaction.

Let's look at the trend, shall we?

We've all heard that donations for ALSA.org are way up - the last news stories I saw had them raising 10 times more through this effort what they typically raise in a year's time.  There's no doubt the Ice Bucket Challenge drives donations.

But what I found particularly interesting was the evidence I can see of human curiosity taking hold to address the awareness question.  The blue line represents the trend in ALS searches, while red refers to keywords related to the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Green represents ALS disease keywords and yellow is technical ALS terms (like "Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis" spelled out).  Sure, there are plenty of people looking for the videos, as evidenced by the chart.  But you can also see a healthy bump in the number of people wanting to learn about ALS as a disease.

To me, that's a big success on the awareness end, particularly since it was driven by something that had no paid media investment behind it.  With a viral hit like this, any significant bump in awareness is an ROI success story, since there's no investment beyond the time and effort taken to launch it.

So the Ice Bucket Challenge might not outwardly appear to be aligned with its goals, strategically, but it achieves what it set out to do by sheer viral force.  So it's a success story by almost any measure.

Perhaps the widespread social bellyaching around how dumping a bucket of ice water on one's head has nothing to do with a dangerous and debilitating disease might just add fuel to the viral fire.  And perhaps we ought not to jump to conclusions too early in the game.

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