When “Exceeding Expectations” Is an Understatement

Imagine this: Hundreds of thousands of people spreading the word in support of your brand by participating in an outlandish activity, posting videos of themselves in action, and encouraging others to join in—whom then happily accept and continue the cycle. This is no marketing fantasy. It’s the reality of the tidal wave of support that the “Ice Bucket Challenge” is bringing to the ALS Association.

If you haven’t heard of the challenge by now, let me catch you up: Everyday people, celebrities, politicians, and more are willingly doused by (or dousing themselves with) buckets of ice water in support of the ALS Association—and then challenging others to do the same or make a donation within 24 hours to fight ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And it’s not just individuals taking and making the challenge; groups representing sports teams, radio stations, ballet companies, bands, and more are participating.

The challenge has taken the social realm by storm, with participants posting videos of ice bucket dumps and challenges. Those doing so as of this writing include everyone from Michael Dell and Robert Scoble to Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg and from Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Pennsylvania Congressman Robert Brady—even former President W. Bush. The list is mind-bogglingly long and increasing by the moment, but you can get an idea by searching #icebucketchallenge on such sites as Facebook and Twitter.

Many of those doused are also donating, even though the challenge is to “be doused or donate.” In fact, from the launch of the challenge on July 29 to August 12 the ASL Association and its 38 chapters received more than $4 million in donations; by comparison, the organization received $1.12 million over that same period last year. As of this writing contributions have grown to $31.5 million, according to data on the association’s website. This includes contributions from 637,527 new donors.

The groundswell of the challenge is increasing it as those accepting the challenge extend it to others, often multiple people.

In a release posted on the ALS Association’s website, President and CEO Barbara Newhouse said, “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the level of compassion, generosity, and sense of humor that people are exhibiting as they take part in this impactful viral initiative.”

The success of the challenge is unprecedented. Of course, the organization now faces its own challenge of retaining those hundreds of thousands of new donors; but that’s a good problem to have.

Marketing with emotion

Marketers from other organizations—nonprofit and for-profit alike—can learn a great deal from the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon. Here are a few observations:

Make it enjoyable for evangelists to share your message. This benefits those learning about you, too. They’re informed about your cause, product, or service in a way that’s engaging or entertaining.

Create a unique experience. Consider the customer experience at an Apple store or Cabela’s. Or, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, nonprofit organization WalktheWalk, which raises money for initiatives related to breast cancer, makes donating about more than just the donation. For its recent Moonwalk (marathon and half-marathon) more than 1,500 women, and a few men, decorated and donned festively adorned bras and power walked the streets of New York starting at about 10:30 p.m.

Be social and visual and encourage others to do the same. In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, nearly every social post includes photo or video—both of which are much more likely to be shared than just text. And the ASL Association isn’t shy about asking challenge participants to share. Its website includes hashtags and badges, as well as Facebook and Twitter cover images, that participants can use.

“While the monetary donations are absolutely incredible,” Newhouse said on the ALS Association website, “the visibility that this disease is getting as a result of the challenge is truly invaluable. People who have never before heard of ALS are now engaged in the fight to find treatments and a cure for ALS.”

Did I take the challenge and donate? Of course I did. And I passed the challenge on to one-to-one marketing master Don Peppers, DMN 2013 Marketing Hall of Femme honorees and Teradata Applications CMO Lisa Arthur, and CXPA’s Bruce Temkin and Karen Temkin. I challenge you, too: to focus on the customer and make your marketing engaging, relevant, and remarkable.

Update, August 21: All of my challenges were accepted and met! 

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