The Ice Bucket Challenge Timeline

Observations August 21, 2014 7:02 am

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Have you heard about the #alsicebucketchallenge? Kidding. Of course you have. Chances are, close to 100% of your Facebook feed is full of friends, friends of friends, and celebrities dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in support of raising money for ALS.

In other words, the charity campaign has gone viral. But how did it reach viral status, and why has it been so successful? Below, find a timeline of events:

June 2014: START: This is the first time I notice the ice bucket challenge. Friends from my hometown of Florence, SC start posting videos of themselves dumping ice on their heads. The rules are simple: you have 24 hours to donate to the charity of your choice– or you can dump a bucket of ice water on your head. After you accept the ice bucket challenge (and film yourself completing it), you invite 3-4 friends to participate over social media. After watching several of these videos, it’s clear that no one is picking the same charity, and there is no mention of ALS yet. The challenge starts to spread, but it’s not yet overwhelming.

July 2014: GAINING: The ice bucket challenge starts to gain steam and gets a few press pick-ups, but still has no centralized rallying cry or mention of ALS. Golfer Greg Norman challenges Matt Lauer, who donates to the Hospice of Palm Beach County. Lauer challenges Martha Stewart, Brian Williams, and Howard Stern… and the challenge continues to accelerate. Still, and this is important, no mention of ALS.

July 31st, 2014: TIPPING POINT: The ice bucket challenge gets it hero: Pete Frates. Frates is a former Boston College baseball player who now has ALS. He nominates himself for the challenge, but because of his condition, he can’t dump ice water on his head. He instead challenges his friends, in the process solidifying the movement by unifying it under one cause. The #icebucketchallenge quickly becomes the #ALSicebucketchallenge.

Early August 2014: VIRAL STATUS:  The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reaches viral status. Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, Bill Gates, the Kennedy family, Tim Cook, Jimmy Fallon, Kate Upton, and George Bush are among the celebrities who accept… the participants read like a who’s who of Hollywood, the tech industry, and politics (Obama sadly declined, but made a donation to ALS). Everyone who’s anyone has dumped ice on their head for a good cause.

Mid-August 2014: PEAK VIRAL: The NY Times publishes stats about the impact of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge since July 29th. Participants have raised over $13.3M dollars, there has been over 2.2M mentions of the campaign on Twitter, and ALS has registered 260,000 new donors. These stats were published on August 17th, so at the rate the challenge is spreading, the total has now likely surpassed well over $15M. Well that escalated quickly; new stats show that more than $41M has been raised.

Mid-August 2014: BACKLASH: The backlash begins as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reaches peak viral status. With popularity comes comes criticism and scrutiny: the ice bucket challenge is a waste of water, especially in drought-ridden regions. It’s taking money away from other charities. It’s slacktivism at its finest, and the challenge is really just “narcissism masked as altruism.” The ALS also starts coming under attack; Pam Anderson refuses to participate because of its testing on animals, and the Cincinnati Archdiocese and other anti-abortion activists raise alarms because the association supports stem-cell research. Some pro-life supporters start doing their own ice bucket challenges (see below, PIVOTS) and donate to other charities. Although the campaign is still rapidly signing up participants, it starts to feel as if this is the beginning of the end. The challenge has gone strong for nearly three weeks, but appears to be slowing. Because really, can you name a celebrity who hasn’t participated at this point?

Mid-to-late August 2014: PIVOTS AND COPYCATS: Some participants start to use the negative criticism, especially about the misuse of water, to tweak the challenge. Rather than pouring ice-cold water on their heads, celebrities like Charlie Sheen instead dump cash on their heads. The campaign is starting to splinter and pivot… how long until it’s not just water or cash that people put in their buckets? At the same time as the pivots, copycat campaigns begin to pop up. “Doubtfire Face for Suicide Prevention” is one of them, and “Eat Pie for HI” is on the horizon.

Late August-September: DECLINE AND END: Given the challenge’s relatively long run for a viral campaign coupled with the emerging backlash, pivots, and copycats, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is on its last legs. Also, you know the end is near when brands start jumping on the bandwagon… to their own benefit. (Here’s looking at you, Samsung). The #alsicebucketchallenge has run its course, and like all viral memes that have come before it, what comes up must come down. But unlike the Harlem Shake or Gangnam Style, the #alsicebucketchallenge will be remembered for its long-lasting impact.

The viral phenomenon is interesting because of how it started: without a centralized rallying cry and without a common cause. Pete Frates gave the campaign two things: a unified cause and an emotional connection. Before Frates, the challenge was reminiscent of bad email chain letters; everyone passed them along, but no one really believed in them. Frates and his personal struggle with ALS gave people something to believe in, and a cause to rally behind. And the rest is history.

For brands trying to create the next “viral” hit, takeaways about why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful:

Why the campaign went viral:

1. It struck an emotional chord and had a clearly defined cause. Pete Frates gave the challenge its hero and purpose: raise money for ALS. With his involvement, the conversation went from individual acts of accomplishment to the feeling of inclusion. The challenge became a way to join a conversation, and gave participants the feeling of “we’re in this together.” It also gave us something to believe in.

2. Short, simple, and social. The challenge was ridiculously simple to execute: find a bucket (or bowl), fill it with ice water, and then grab a friend to film the act with a phone. Post the video to social media and then spread the challenge by tagging friends. The videos are short– most are less than 30 seconds and even 15 seconds– which is optimal length for social media channels. It was also inherently social, and the public nature of challenging friends added a sense of urgency for donating and completing your own challenge.

3. Clear understanding of culture. Call it “narcissism masked as altruism” or leveraging selfie culture, but the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge struck a chord because it took advantage of existing cultural behaviors. Because let’s face it, we love posting pictures and videos of ourselves and getting recognition for it. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge didn’t try to create a new behavior, and it didn’t overcomplicate the ask. It focused on one golden nugget of information: we are obsessed with how we’re perceived on social media. And because of this, very few people completely ignored or declined the challenge.

updated 8/22 to reflect new fundraising stats and new backlash 

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