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 Facebook, or Instagram, or even on the news. If you have, you might be wondering why people are dousing themselves in ice water, often with hilarious results.

Keep reading for an explanation of the buckets of ice water, a breakdown of why this particular video stunt has spread virally, and video marketing lessons for your next charitable campaign.

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. 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, as it is eloquent, inspiring, and gives great insight into what it’s like to be faced with such a life-changing diagnosis.

Success to Date

The Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the most successful viral video campaigns in history. It 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. That amounts to an increase of 6,650%!

Celebrities and professional athletes have gotten in on the fun, and the campaign has been all over the news. As a viral campaign, it’s an out-and-out success.

The Truth About Going Viral

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, 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.

If going viral is hard, tying the exposure to the results your business seeks is even harder. Attention is fleeting, and tying branding to a viral video can be risky depending on the content.

In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the success came not just from the hilarity of seeing different people performing the same stunt. It also came from the viral elements (more on that below) and the clear goal of raising money built into the challenge itself.

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 Ice Bucket Challenge campaign.

Any campaign needs clearly defined objectives. Otherwise, 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 re-shared by an expanding network of people. For the Ice Bucket Challenge, 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. That way, the number of participants quickly starts to add up.

By nominating friends publicly, the pressure is on for them to complete the challenge one way or another. Naturally, this increases the new participants’ motivation to respond in public, lest they face the shame of appearing to not complete the challenge. In turn, this only serves to increase the exposure of the challenge itself.

The general 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 positive emotions (joy, interest, anticipation, and trust) in its audience was more likely to go viral than any other type of content.

In this case, you can find each element Buzzfeed identified as a potential factor for going viral. 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. It prompts people to speak their minds and share their opinions.

Believe it or not, there are examples of negative reactions to the Ice Bucket Challenge. For instance, there’s general confusion as to how it helps the cause, as well as suspicions that some participants are in it more for the attention and Facebook likes than actually donating or supporting the cause.

As it turns out, those types of reactions only help rather than hurt the viral campaign. A strong reaction, whether positive or negative will drive engagement.

The takeaway is to steel yourself for a truly mixed response if you ever manage to get a video to go viral. A controversial element will only help propel it forward.


The last key ingredient for viral success 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, just because it’s so extreme:

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

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