Can Your Cause Catch Lightning in an Ice Bucket?

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Replicating the success of the #icebucketchallenge

By Ritu Sharma, Executive Director, Social Media for Nonprofits

The world is buzzing with ice bucket news, with marketing and communication professionals scratching their heads wondering how to replicate the same results for their own organizations. After all, a nearly 1000% increase in donations from the previous year, and almost 400,000 new donors would be a miracle for most nonprofits.

This is an excellent opportunity for us to recognize the power of social media and how great an equalizer it is. This organic and grassroots campaign eclipsed the best and highest spend media campaign in the news cycle. It demonstrated how it is possible for nonprofits to compete with brands and organizations with multi-million dollar ad buying budgets by being creative and harnessing the power of social media and social activism.

So, what can the rest of us learn from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Here are some takeaways to get your team thinking:

Believe in the Power of Clicktivism

Shrugging off the power of hashtag activism has been a problem in our sector, but it’s time to recognize and embrace this force for social change and harness it to serve the greater good. Thanks to campaigns like this, participating in philanthropy is “cool” and the “in” thing to do!

Clicktivism can amplify your organization’s message and build awareness, which is the first step toward increased donations. People have to know who you are and care before they will be moved to actually do anything, like donate.

It takes roughly 7-8 exposures to catch someone’s attention online, so the more people sharing your message, the better. Don’t dismiss the clicktivisits – you need them!

Going Viral – It’s All in the Details

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is evidence of one thing: going viral is unpredictable. Who would have imagined that such a silly challenge would reach so far and raise so much awareness and money for the cause it was aimed at supporting? After all, when the challenge debuted on the pro golf circuit a year ago, it didn’t do nearly as well.

But if we apply the lessons learned over the past few weeks and throw in a little social media know-how, we just may cause lightning to strike again and benefit our own organizations. Here’s a breakdown of all the key elements to consider for your best chance at a viral movement.

What is your ice bucket challenge? – That’s the first question you need to answer. What action, when reproduced and shared, will inspire people to continue the movement? Need some inspiration? Consider these campaigns:

#100HappyDays – trendy right now, you’ll see this hashtag all over social media, as users challenge themselves to focus on the positive

Gratitude challenges – the popular one these days has users list three things they are grateful for each day for five days, but there have been numerous variations lasting for different lengths of time

#YesAllWomen – certainly on a more serious note, this hashtag opened a lot of eyes and there are plenty of causes that would fit this style of messaging

These are just examples, but given that each has achieved massive visibility already, expounding on any of these ideas could be just the thing to take awareness and donations to the next level.

Time of year – the ice bucket challenge would have been a bust in the winter, right? When you begin your campaign can make or break it.

Who your campaign is aimed at – the ice bucket challenge worked with all age ranges, but not every campaign may allow for that. Know who you’re trying to attract, and tailor your challenge and message to them. Start with your network of followers, and call out key players whom you know to have large networks of their own to get momentum going.

Why they would want to participate – the ice bucket challenge was fun to do and watch, also producing a palpable glee over naming the next “victims.” Not every campaign has to be fun, but participants do need to have a clear understanding of what’s in it for them if they take part.

How your message will be shared – video is fantastic for something like the ice bucket challenge, but still images can still be powerful. Keep it simple and be sure you clearly define:

  •      What people are meant to capture and share
  •      Any messaging to include in the image or video, i.e. hashtags, instructions to friends, URLs
  •      How many people they are to “call out” and tag
  •      Where to donate whether they accept and complete the challenge or not

Keep it Real and Make ‘Em Feel

Part of what makes the ice bucket challenge so appealing is that when you trace it back you land on Pat Quinn of Yonkers, N.Y and Pete Frates of Beverly, MA – two very real people with ALS, who challenged some buddies for fun, setting off a fundraising chain they probably couldn’t have imagined. Here are some strategies to get the same effect:

  •      Give your cause a face – someone (or a group of someones) people can feel connected to
  •      Strike an emotional chord – many feelings inspire people to act, so find an angle that is appropriate for your cause; making them laugh or feel touched can work, but so can anger
  •      Set the example – the reason it’s so much fun to see people like Oprah, Martha Stewart and Bill Gates take the ice bucket challenge is because it seems so out of character, or perhaps even beneath them; demonstrate your challenge yourself and call out other sector and community leaders to do the same

Plan Ahead

While the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a grassroots phenomenon and NOT the result of a well-crafted campaign, being prepared never hurts. At the same time, anything that feels overly slick or forced has the potential to turn people off so try to strike a balance.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” So said Roman philosopher Seneca, so start prepping now so that when the time is right, you’re ready and waiting for Lady Luck to swoop on in.

Be Mindful of Natural Resources & Your Impact

You can’t prepare for it all and foresee all possible negative reactions. But, when planning initiatives like this, be mindful of and be good stewards of natural resources. Think in advance, is there a negative outcome? Get social proof through a diverse group of people to do your best to avoid starting something that may harm your image, the sector or the natural ecosystem.

In the case of #IceBucketChallenge, empower and challenge people to do it in creative ways to perhaps dunk in the cold Pacific Ocean (a natural resource) instead of dumping fresh and clean water in a drought. You’ll do even more good, if it can revolve around a present challenge like drought and creative ways to address it while raising awareness and funds!

Bring it Full Circle!

Plan something like this as a first step! Look at it as an opportunity to expose the good work your nonprofit does and how it makes an impact in the sector and the greater world and embrace new followers. This sort of exposure comes with its own challenges of how to keep the new followers engaged and move them on the spectrum of engagement to higher levels.

Have a plan in place to communicate with and provide meaningful engagement to these new folks who’ve joined your organization starting with thanking & recognizing them appropriately. Plan ways for them to be connected to the cause and to contribute in a way that is meaningful for them on an ongoing basis.

Finally, don’t forget to communicate the impact! A lot of people have invested time and energy in your cause and it is an excellent opportunity to reconnect and reengage people a few months down the road when you communicate the end result. Think of communicating impact through just as creative ways as a follow up campaign.

Have you run a viral campaign before? We’d love to hear what you learned.


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