Life After the Ice Bucket: Can the ALS Association Repeat Its Unexpected Viral Success?

Challenge now is what to do next

Remember that summer when you couldn't sign into Facebook without seeing your neighbor or favorite celebrity dumping a bucket of ice over her head?

In 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised $115 million during a six-week period for the ALS Association, the national nonprofit that funds research for and promotes awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The challenge, which ultimately became an award-winning viral campaign, had been popular on the professional golf circuit for years, benefiting various charities. But it wasn't until golfer Chris Kennedy challenged his wife's cousin, Jeanette Senerchia, that it became associated with ALS. Jeanette's husband, Anthony, has the disease, and soon the challenge reached two other men active in the ALS community, Pat Quinn and Pete Frates.

"Their social network sort of took this and ran with it for ALS," said Carrie Munk, chief communications and marketing officer for the association. "We never wanted to take credit for this. We wanted to shepherd this viral movement and provide resources to those who were looking for them. We embraced it and helped as best we could."

Within the first few weeks of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the organization gained more than 700,000 new Facebook fans.

"No matter where you go now, people immediately recognize the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge," Munk said. "ALS is tied to this great social phenomenon. It's a tremendous thing."

The real challenge begins

So what does an organization do to follow up such a viral sensation? For the ALS Association, harnessing the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge meant relying on marketing basics: identifying its audience, setting goals, defining the proper channels and evaluating its tactics.

The organization knew how difficult it would be to replicate what happened in 2014, but it also knew it should try to capitalize on its newfound attention. In many ways, the unexpected viral success turned the nonprofit into a marketer, forcing it to dig deeper and be more strategic about how and where it reached its audience.

The Ice Bucket Challenge inspired nearly 308,000 new donors to the ALS Association. The first task was getting to know these new donors through audience research and analysis. 

"I think we have become much more analytical," Munk said. "We needed to gain insight into this new group to make strategic decisions about fundraising, communications and marketing. What content are they interested in? How often do they want to hear from us?"


        Jimmy Fallon takes part in the Ice Bucket Challenge. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

Plotting its next move

The ALS Association started using its blog and social media channels to communicate with its audience not only about the Ice Bucket Challenge, but also about the disease in general and other ways to support the cause.

To educate new supporters on ways they could help the cause after dousing themselves in ice water, the ALS Association introduced the hashtag #ChallengeALS. The campaign aimed to tap into the competitive nature of those ice-bucket donors. It's now the mantra for endurance events—marathons, cycling tours, winter sports—that raise money for ALS.

Because of the new level of interest from donors and attention from the public, the ALS Association also felt a tremendous responsibility to be transparent about the impact of the Ice Bucket Challenge. The group published an infographic about how the funds were used and added an FAQ page to its website. Of the $115 million raised, 67 percent went to ALS research and 20 percent to patient and community services.

A year after the viral triumph of the Ice Bucket Challenge, many members of the ALS community wanted to do it again. The second time around, the association provided a how-to video, an infographic and other materials for people interested in diving in.

"We had the luxury of being able to plan for the campaign and not be 100 percent reactive," Munk said.

The ALS Association raised $1 million in August 2015, a significant increase over the years prior to the challenge but nowhere near what it raised in 2014. While enthusiasm around the ice bucket has waned, supporters are encouraged to take the challenge every August as just one of many ways to help support ALS research. 

"We feel very fortunate that the Ice Bucket Challenge increased awareness and understanding of the disease because that's obviously a huge hurdle, getting people engaged with your cause no matter what it is," Munk said.

Changing the game for cause marketers

According to eMarketer, social media was the top content strategy cited in a November 2014 study of nonprofits conducted right after the Ice Bucket Challenge, beating out in-person events, which held the top spot in 2013. The same study found that more cause marketers were citing brand awareness and engagement as goals after the challenge—up 14 percent and 19 percent, respectively. 

Munk predicts it's very likely we'll see a nonprofit campaign as virally successful as the Ice Bucket Challenge again. It's not a matter of if, she said, but when and for which cause. And organizations have to be nimble and prepared to react when it does happen.

"That was one of the huge attractions for people," Munk said. "It wasn't an organization pushing it. It was three guys living with the disease that started this movement."

The ALS Association has spent a lot of time thinking about what to do next in the post-ice bucket world. There's a new, multichannel campaign with PR firm Edelman in the works (no details have been released yet), and Munk said the organization is enthusiastic about the future.

"The real lasting effect of the Ice Bucket Challenge is now August is a time that people are thinking about ALS," Munk said. "They will always remember back to that crazy summer when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge happened."

Read more about how creativity and tech are fueling today's nonprofits in Adweek's Cause Marketing Report.