The Five Real Lessons The Ice Bucket Challenge Offers Digital Marketers

Only digital marketing and advertising professional could come back from the summer holidays to ask whether the August "ice bucket challenge" was a phenomenon worthy of note or simply a flash in the pan fad.

For an industry that routinely runs campaigns that are only going to ever last a month or so, it seems an odd question to ask of a viral campaign that has far exceeded the poster child for such charity phenomenons, the "no make-up selfie." Why should such a massive viral success have a question asked of it that you would never ask of a six-week car launch? Have you ever asked whether that banner ad or TV spot is a fad?

The challenge was a surprise for anyone who, like me, turned data roaming on while holidaying this August (thanks to the European Commission for some long overdue sensible pricing). It soon became repetitive, but the egotist in us all was, very secretly, shifting from dreading a nomination to wondering why one was yet to arrive. Like many, I forewent the extended family's G&T ice supply to follow the crowd.

While everyone's dissecting the challenge to bits, it's worth noting that the ALS Association is knocking on the door of $100m donations (more in a month than it would typically make in a year) and both the Macmillan and Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA) have received more than GBP3m. So, the realist in anyone not navel gazing is that a condition which few had heard of has received a massive injection of cash and public awareness, and two well-known UK charities have acted in that old favourite, "real-time," to increase their own awareness and contributions.

Anyone surprised by or castigating either charity -- Macmillan has come in for some serious scrutiny, in particular -- probably doesn't realise what a competitive space this is or how social virals will rarely remain in the control of their originator. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I were to say when I've worked with some charities you'd be forgiven for thinking a rival organisation was viewed as big a problem as the health condition several charities were all supposedly aligned in fighting. The quip in Monty Python's Life of Brian about the Peoples' Front of Judea dislike for The Judean Peoples' Front rings particularly true.

So if the ice bucket challenge taught us anything, it is this. 

1. Of course it's a fad

People like to show off on social media -- no surprise there -- but also a social viral phenomenon will run out of steam as people get fed up with endless videos of the same event. By definition, all campaigns, viral or not, will come to an end. They are designed to be fads.

2. Real-time is a must

It also showed that the originator of a fad will come out on top -- $100m in donations compared to roughly $5m for two UK charities speaks for itself -- but also it shows marketing departments really do have to live more in "real-time." 

Like any viral, the ice bucket challenge pretty much came out of nowhere, and during the August lull in marketing and advertising. Those who jumped on it quickly may well have got some stick for steering donations their way, but do you really think any less of Macmillan's wonderful work because they were clever enough to react quickly, in real-time, to seize an opportunity?

3. Cheaper roaming means social is "always on"

What it truly showed is that the social channel remains on, even during the newspaper's "silly" season and the accompanying dip in TV viewing accompanying better weather and holidays. This is, I believe, largely down to the EU ensuring that data cannot be charged at more than a fifth or a Euro per Mb. If anything, the challenge showed what is possible when attention is allowed to remain on social when it naturally dips on traditional media.

4. Social pester power

Of course, the majority of nominations came from people who had completed the challenge. Anyone watching videos, however, will have noticed in its latter half that children were co-driving the phenomenon, nominating their friends -- and if my experience is anything to go by, insisting that parents took up their nominations. 

5. New combination

So if the ice bucket challenge gave us one thing, it showed us how social is by definition a fad, that it is endures dips in traditional media attention (thanks to affordable data roaming) and that marketers cannot underestimate the influence of pester power among those too young to hold accounts but whom can apply pressure like nobody else on those who do.

To think charities did so well, in financial and awareness, demonstrating these points makes it a double win-win.

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