Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Went Viral

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Photo: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is perfect.

Sure, it’s goofy. It’s hammy. It’s confused. (Dump a cooler over your head or donate to Lou Gehrig’s disease? Let’s hope that Bill Gates and his gorgeous colored-pencil set and his perfect dock and his $76 billion gave a whole lot more than $100.) But as a viral charitable-giving campaign, it is textbook, much like the bullied bus monitor and Kony 2012 and Movember campaigns before it.

That is because it pulls the big social and emotional levers that get people to give, and it makes it easy and fun for them to do so. It’s a campaign to make behavioral economists and marketing experts happy — as well as the ALS Association, which has received about $23 million in donations thus far. Let’s break the components of its giddy, viral appeal.

It’s personal. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is not just about raising money to combat a horrible disease. It’s about a person: Pete Frates, the 29-year-old former captain of Boston College’s baseball team. The campaign first took off in New England as Frates’s friends, neighbors, and classmates joined in and posted their ice-dumping videos in honor of him on YouTube and Facebook.

People are more likely to support an individual tied to a cause than a cause that affects many individuals. The way that some academics put it is that we care more about “identifiable” victims than “statistical” victims. One study, for instance, found that people contributed more to a charity if their contributions went to a pre-selected family than they did if their contributions went to a to-be-selected family, all else equal.

It’s social. You want your friends to tag you. You want to tag your friends. You want to post it all on Facebook. You want to see who else has done it. Charitable-giving experts have long understood the power of peer pressure and peer validation when it comes to coughing up the cash. For instance, studies show that people give more money when they have to reveal to a partner how much they gave, or when someone they know asks them for a donation.

It makes the giver feel great. The Ice Bucket Challenge is a feel-good, feel-cold summer phenomenon — its participants get to do something silly, and get to feel good about themselves for doing something silly. It’s called the “warm glow” effect, and it turns out to be a powerful motivator. The idea is that donors are often not being entirely altruistic when they give away their cash. They are getting a sense of validation or some other emotional rush from the act. The Ice Bucket Challenge provides a strong emotional rush, judging by all those Facebook videos, helping explain its money-raising mojo.

It supports a good cause. And after all the questions about Kony 2012, thank goodness! The ALS Association is a highly vetted charity that spends the lion’s share of its money on research and support for families. That matters to donors. When it comes to charitable giving campaigns on social media, many potential givers decline to give because of concerns about scams, the charity in question’s efficacy, and the misuse of private information. According to one poll, about one in five people said they had declined to donate to a cause because they were not sure how their money would be used. 

It makes a small, concrete ask. Pay up or dump ice water on your head. Or pay up and dump ice water on your head. The Ice Bucket Challenge is a model of simplicity. It’s easy to understand, easy to do, and easy to give, for everybody from teenagers to billionaires. That gives it a certain frictionlessness that is important for social-media campaigns. “$10,000 asks don’t go viral. $10 asks do,” advises one nonprofit consultancy. “If you’re trying to start a viral fundraising campaign, make your asks bite-sized and concrete: $10 to buy a mosquito net and stave off malaria.”

As a result, people are piling on. It's true, maybe it would be more efficient for everyone to save some water and just give to a good cause. But where's the cold, clean fun in that?