The Virality Behind the #IceBucketChallenge

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge


Since the beginning of July 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has taken over social media feeds around the country and globe, raising millions of dollars in funds and massive awareness for the disease. Several million users have posted videos of themselves dumping ice water over their heads and challenging friends to do the same or donate $100 to the ALS Association. Participants have included the likes of Oprah, Bill Gates and the New England Patriots.

By every measure, the initiative has been a huge success for the ALS Association, bringing in $41M and counting, according to a recent New York Times report. Facebook’s research shows us that the epicenter of the phenomenon is Boston, MA, presumably sparked by local support for former Boston College basketball player and early participant in the challenge, Pete Frates.

Resolution POV

The runaway success of this initiative clearly has strong ties to its noble cause. Regular people and celebrities alike are eager to participate, knowing that they are doing good by raising awareness and funds for ALS research. But a charitable component isn’t always necessary to achieve virality. There are a couple of lessons to be learned from the Ice Bucket Challenge that can apply across any type of initiative to garner user participation in social.

  1. Authentic influencer seeding. This phenomenon radiated out from Boston, where the story was kick-started by an influencer with a close friend affected by the disease. Pete Frates had not only connections to well-known Boston athletes, but also a highly personal reason to share this message. The one-two punch of social influence and an authentic connection to the subject matter is an absolute must in choosing individuals to help kick off a UGC campaign.
  2. A simple AND specific ask. Like planking, Tebowing and the Harlem Shake before it, the Ice Bucket Challenge is very easy to replicate. The rules are immediately clear, while leaving some room for improvisation, creativity and humor. This means that the videos are easy to create but also fun to watch. Too often, planned user-generated content (UGC) initiatives ask for a high level of depth or creativity, creating a high barrier to participation. By making the ask simple and specific, the Ice Bucket Challenge has made it easy to get involved.
  3. Keeping social social. Also taking a cue from past viral memes, the Ice Bucket Challenge makes the video creator look a little silly, and that entertainment quality is exactly what brings value to those who watch it and makes this content so sharable. Add in the social pressure of being “called out” by a friend to participate, and you have the makings of a wildly successful 21st-century chain letter.


The Ice Bucket Challenge has been incredibly successful in taking the well-established recipes of previous social trends and applying them to a charitable cause. The campaign’s success has once again proven that authentic influencers, a simple and specific ask, and entertaining content are core to any UGC initiative.

Before launching a similar social campaign, brands should look to this trend and ask themselves: Does my approach mirror that of the Ice Bucket Challenge and other organically viral campaigns of the past? If not, it may be time to revisit the campaign structure. Thoughtfully utilizing the learnings of social media phenomena like these means more investment up front, but it will also result in more organic participation and less investment in paid media and prizes to push engagement with a campaign that just isn’t engaging.

For information about Resolution, visit our website: www.resolutionmedia.com.