It’s not everyday that we have the chance to write about a viral video that also has a heart of gold, but today is that day. You may have seen this phenomenon pop up on your Facebook newsfeed or Instagram, or even on the news, and might be wondering why people are dousing themselves in ice water. Keep reading for an explanation of the buckets of ice water, a breakdown of why this particular video stunt has spread virally, and some marketing lessons for your next charitable campaign.

*Disclaimer – at the time of publication, the author was nominated for the ice bucket challenge and donated money to the ALSA.

Some Background

ALS is a debilitating disease with no known cure. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and the spinal column. Sufferers slowly lose the ability to initiate and control voluntary muscle movements, meaning they eventually become totally paralyzed. Sadly, the prognosis after a patient is diagnosed is bleak – the only available drugs simply slow the progress of the disease, and a majority of people with ALS pass away after 3-5 short years.

Boston College alum Pete Frates was diagnosed with ALS a few years ago. He has been campaigning to increase awareness of the affliction and to raise funding for more research into potential treatments ever since. You should really read his story in his own words in this article, as it is eloquent, inspriring, and gives great insight into what it’s like to be faced with such a lifechanging diagnosis.

Success to Date

Whether the ice bucket campaign originated with Pete Frates or not appears to be somewhat debatable, but frankly, that’s irrelevant. What matters is that it’s working, and has succeeded in raising more than $2.3 million for the ALS Association so far, compared to $25,000 in the same period last year – an increase of 6,650%! Celebrities and professional athletes have gotten in on the fun, too, and the campaign has been all over the news.

Anatomy of a Successful Viral Video Campaign

The vast majority of videos will not go viral, and aiming to make a “viral video” is a big mistake. You can have all the right elements to drive viewer engagement, like a disgruntled animal or a fast car, but it’s still unlikely to get off the ground. There’s just too much noise out there these days, with 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.

What Does Success Look Like to You?

First of all, we have to define success prior to launch. In this case, awareness of ALS and fundraising were the two main goals of the campaign. Any campaign needs clearly defined objectives, or a lack of organizing principles will doom it from the start. Your goals also inform your key performance indicators (KPIs), allowing you to measure progress and identify issues along the way.

Viral Cycle

To go viral, a campaign needs to be shared and reshared by an expanding network of people, and key components of this campaign made it more likely to work than others. For starters, the ice bucket challenge is usually issued to at least 3 friends of the most recently dampened participant, so the numbers quickly start to pile up. By nominating friends publicly, the pressure is on for them to complete the challenge, increasing their motivation to do so lest they face the shame of not completing the challenge. Beyond peer pressure, there is also a “cost” to failing to complete the ice bucket challenge in the form of a donation to ALS. Naturally, that is a positive thing to do and many people are rightly choosing to donate and also dumping ice water on their heads. The idea is to incentivize sharing, leverage group dynamics, and motivate participants to keep the cycle going.

Eliciting Positive Emotions

Beyond the hilarity of people dousing themselves with buckets of frigid water, the ice bucket campaign is getting a much more complex reaction than that. A recent study from Buffer demonstrated that content that generated postive emotions (joy, interest, anticipation, and trust) in its audience was more likely to go viral than any other type of content. There is the joy of seeing your friend dump water on themselves, interest in who they might nominate to go next, anticipation of watching your friend get soaked, and trust that it’s for a good cause.

Mixed Emotions

However, positive emotions alone aren’t enough. A mix of positive and negative emotions is actually better for viewer engagement, partly because it prompts people to speak their minds and share their opinions. There are plenty of negative reactions to the ice bucket campaign, with common sentiments ranging from confused as to how it helps the cause, to those who think people are in it more for the attention and Facebook likes than actually donating or supporting the cause. The stats behind the campaign back up its legitimacy, and those types of reactions only help rather than hurt the viral campaign. The takeaway is to steel yourself for a truly mixed response if you are ever lucky enough to get a video to go viral – a controversial element will only help propel it forward.


The last key element to a viral video is the element of surprise. It doesn’t matter that you know your friend is going to get doused by water, you don’t know exactly when or how it will happen. Their reaction is also not known, and all of that makes for a delightful surprise. You probably have a few favorite ice bucket videos, and those were likely to have been the most surprising. Here’s our personal fave:

Want more tips for getting a video to go viral? Reach out to us in the comments below or on Twitter!

Written by Courtney Purchon

Courtney is the Head of Marketing at SproutVideo. Follow her on Twitter.

Posted August 12, 2014

blog comments powered by Disqus