How the Ice Bucket Challenge Achieved Viral Status (And Why Companies Should Take Note)

I’m the Founder & CEO of a startup. This means that my company Avelist is always on my mind. Everything I experience, every conversation I have, every article I read, makes me think about my company. And the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is no exception.

Ice Bucket Challenge? Not sure what I’m talking about? I don’t really know what to say except that you clearly aren’t on Facebook ☺Here’s a Wikipedia link for you. Catch up real quick and come back…

The Ice Bucket Challenge is the ultimate viral case study. Think about it. Your tech friends and non-tech friends. All hobbies and all interests. East Coasters, West Coasters, and everywhere in between. All ages, all genders, and all races. The ice bucket challenge knows no bounds. This is exactly what makes it an interesting and important case study for entrepreneurs and corporations.

The challenge itself has all the key ingredients needed to go viral.
  1. It’s simple, straight forward, and easy for someone to participate. A person gets tagged on Facebook (a public channel that they can’t ignore). They take a video of themselves pouring a bucket of ice water on their heads. Then they tag a friend who does the same thing. Easy.
  2. It ties into a person’s ego. They have permission to take a video of themselves and post it online. In our selfie-crazed culture, this is appealing.
  3. It’s social. You can’t do the ice bucket challenge alone. Someone has to tag you and then you tag someone else. The challenge is innately social. Furthermore, the social concept ties back to my point on ego. Not only does the challenge spread because of the person-to-person social structure, but it’s also cleverly designed to showcase a person’s social status. Who are you good enough friends with that they would nominate you? And who do you know well enough that you would nominate them? Mark Zuckerberg nominates Bill Gates. Martha Stewart nominates Blake Lively. And then we all talk about it. It’s happening on micro-levels too, I guarantee. The head cheerleader just nominated the football captain. Social status confirmed.
  4. It’s designed to spread on social platforms. In fact, it requires them. Just like you can’t do the challenge alone, you also can’t participate without posting it on a social platform like Facebook or Twitter. It’s part of the rules. It’s how you challenge the next person. Clever.
  5. It’s connected to a cause that resonates with people. Not only is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fun and social, but those who participate know that their actions are tied to a greater mission. It makes them feel good. It gives them purpose. And it encourages them to participate.
But a lot of companies, products and marketing campaigns utilize these five key components. Why haven’t they gone viral?

Who started this Ice Bucket Challenge? And how did they market it so successfully? Last night I decided to dig into the origins of this viral phenomena. Although a bit fuzzy, most articles seem to agree that this particular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was started by golfer Chris Kennedy who challenged his cousin Jeanette Senerchia who was connected on Facebook to a man named Pat Quinn. Quinn, who was recently diagnosed with ALS, spread the challenge to his network and ultimately to a former Boston College baseball player named Pete Frates who also has ALS. From there the challenge spread like wildfire.

But after all of my research, one tiny line of one tiny article stuck out to me the most. Here’s what it said: “Last month, after seeing a friend post the ice bucket challenge video that didn’t quite catch on, Quinn got his friends involved, and the rest — as they say — is history.”

Did you catch that?
When the first people did the Ice Bucket Challenge, it didn’t take off.

Did this mean it was a bad idea? No! Those first people probably saw the challenge’s true potential and thought “Woah if we could get the whole world to participate, it would be awesome!”

Sound familiar, startups? It was a great idea, but it didn’t spread virally. Not until the right people picked it up. Sure it might have been that those first people didn’t execute the idea well. Maybe they didnt tag people correctly on Facebook. I don’t really know. But ultimately it seems that what made this challenge go viral is the fact that the right people participated. Influential people. Who then spread it to their large networks.

This is a huge point for startups to understand— If your idea isn’t catching on, it doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad idea. And it also doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing a bad job executing. But maybe you should re-evaluate your marketing. Perhaps you should consider taking another stab at getting your idea in front of the right people.


More About ALS. ALS is a truly tragic, neurological disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The disease progresses rapidly, affecting muscles and ultimately leading to full body paralysis. ALS commonly strikes people ages 40–70 and it’s estimated that 30,000 Americans are currently battling the disease. You can donate here to help The ALS Association assist current victims, raise awareness, and find a cure.


Jody Porowski is the Founder and CEO of Avelist, a crowd sourcing platform where people can collect advice from friends and experts. Follow her on Twitter @jodyporowski and read more of her writing at jodyporowski.com.
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