What really made the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge go viral?

Craig Page
By Craig Page | 8 September 2014

Whenever a new ‘viral hit’ breaks out across the Internet, a special horn is blown from the rooftop of Reddit headquarters. This Horn’s sound, inaudible to most, carries across the globe. Only the members of the planet’s Social Media Guru Alliance can hear it. It is a call to arms, to fingers, to keyboards, to blogs. It is the time we must let everyone know the secrets behind the sensation’s success, so that we be rewarded with readers and SEO benefits, organic traffic uplift and advertising revenue. It is for this reason that I bring you this, the real reasons the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral…

Ice – The use of Ice magically plugged into the hearts of the Gen-Y audience. This audience grew up in the 90s and, thanks to popular acts of the day such as Ice-T, Ice Cube and Vanilla Ice singing ‘Ice, Ice Baby’, not to mention frequent use of the term ‘cool’ to refer to something popular or fashionable, Gen-Ys have a special connection to blocks of frozen water. The challenge itself is a metaphor for the Gen-Y’s favourite media channel Facebook, depicting the liberal pouring down of three-dimensional blue squares of ‘cool content’. This provides a deeper, subliminal relevance that further drives appeal.

Buckets – Of course there would be no audience without people participating, and this was made possible by the clever strategic selection of a bucket as the receptacle of the ice. People are much more likely to support grassroots causes, and what could possibly be more everyman and accessible than the humble bucket? We’ve all got one somewhere in the house. Could you see the same success for the Ice Top Hat Challenge? I don’t think so. Such a move might appeal more to the high-end celebrities involved but it would alienate the majority of the charity’s mass audience.

Er… Challenges? – I’m sorry. I can’t do this any more. The truth is that anyone can draw comparisons between internet success stories and attempt to put together a check-list for success, but unfortunately it really, doesn’t work that way. Agreed, there are some things that seem to go well – celebrities, good causes and nomination mechanics are among them, as are hidden camera pranks, kittens, police brutality, fast cars and boobs – but we forget that most failures also have some of these things (your agency may have made a few), and many successes have none of them. Formulas do not work at producing viral success. The big, screaming goat in the room is that you need a shedload of luck to go viral, and no agency or content producer can promise you any of that.

In his 2007 Book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explored the phenomenon of highly impactful, highly unpredictable events and our inclination to find simple explanations in hindsight. The author’s experience came from the world of stock brokering, an industry based on predicting the movements of an infinitely complex and nuanced ecosystem where people make huge sums of money placing bets that have been scientifically proven to be no better than chance (sound familiar? Apart from the huge sums of money bit of course). The conclusion of the book is that you cannot predict or design these unlikely events, but you can understand the mathematics behind them in order to be best placed when they do occur.

Like a game of poker, in earned media there are things you can do to help maximize your chances of success, but you are always at the mercy of how the cards fall. You can do everything right and fail, or you can just be lucky and win. So yes, let’s keep in mind that celebrities and kittens have an inherent appeal, but here are two actionable tips that will make a real difference to your chances;

Be Lean, Diversify and Learn – for every piece of content that actually goes viral, there are thousands that fail. Play the percentages and produce as many different ideas as you can within your budget. One thing that is indisputably not proportional with viral success is production investment; why produce one idea with your entire production budget if you could do 10 with 10% each? Then push them all out, see which one wins and pump support behind that one. As with poker, the more hands you are in, the greater chance of getting a full house – and you wait until you know you have a winning hand before going all in.

Use Paid and Owned – if you don’t already know, you will not believe how many of the classic ‘Viral sensations’ got to where they did thanks to reach generated by either a significant seeding budget or an established follower audience. The big mother grand-daddy of all viral hits, Gangnam Style, got it’s start thanks to an established community of over a million K-Pop fans and an article placed on Gawker. The fans and subscribers you build today are your earned media Launchpad for tomorrow (provided you don’t spam them into obscurity first).

Viral Marketing, due to it's high-risk nature, lends itself towards marketers who are either prepared to gamble a small proportion of budget on achieving inter-galactic fame and success, or have a tiny budget and need to punch above their weight. However, by producing a diverse range of appealing content and utilizing paid and earned you can improve your chances. No guarantees though. People who like guarantees don’t like Poker. They prefer Roulette, where they can enjoy the ups and downs of a guaranteed slow financial decline over the course of a long evening.

Craig Page is Digital Strategy Director at Havas Worldwide Sydney.

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