Lessons on viral spread, from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Unless you’ve been on a social media fast for the last few weeks, you already know that the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” has taken over everyone’s Facebook feed … and the ALS Foundation is seeing donations up 30x, and rising.

The concept isn’t new – there was the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics, and then the Cold Water Challenge for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation … so why the sudden explosion for this particular charity, this particular challenge? ALS is a horrible disease, but we’re touched by Special Olympic participants and Fallen Firefighters too, of course.

There are three things that are unique about this particular challenge that helped give it powerful viral potential:

1. Universally Accessible – Just about anyone has access to ice, water, and a bucket. In contrast, the Polar Plunge required having a cold (but not too cold) body of water around. Since that describes well under a quarter of the population, the Polar Plunge challenge kept losing its viral momentum.

2. Very Human – and “Accidentally” Flattering – The challenge was just hard enough to be interesting, and just funny enough without crossing the line into “pie in your face.” Virtually all of the videos for the Ice Water Challenge have a “look how cute/strong/funny/brave I am” quality that makes them fun to post. Middle-aged men who are still in great shape happened to turn up shirtless. Women clearly worked the camera angles and showed up in their cutest shorts. And it was totally acceptable to post these videos of yourself – because “everyone” was doing it!

3.  Right Timing (which, as always, is everything) – The Ice Water challenge hit the airwaves at a time where the world was facing serious, complicated threats.  Isis is a growing and terrifying threat in the Middle East.  Ferguson, MO is dealing with heavy race issues in the wake of the shooting of a young black man by a police officer.  In contrast, a bucket of ice water is tangible, manageable, and … dare we say it? … even fun.  Turning to the comfort of a shared playful experience via social media is one way we use community to help manage the unmanageable.  I should note that obviously (and thankfully) timing isn’t always about counterbalancing difficult issues – it can also mean introducing during complementary trends, etc. – it’s all about showing up when the need for your content is highest.

So – you want your meme/app/product to catch viral wind?  Make it universally accessible, human/flattering, and watch for the right moment … good luck!