Social Media and PR: Insights from the Ice Bucket Challenge on Creating Lasting Impact

Social Media and PR: Insights from the Ice Bucket Challenge on Creating Lasting Impact

Johnny Vance
2 August 2016

It has been two years since the Ice Bucket Challenge flooded Facebook with videos of people dousing their heads in buckets of freezing water. In the summer of 2014, these videos started going viral, and we all discovered that they were part of a coordinated initiative by the ALS Association. Politicians, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and even a media intelligence executive or two took notice.

On one hand, the movement brought attention to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and the need for a cure. On the other, it became a prime example of slacktivism. Is this a PR win?

Using our media intelligence platform, we see that the ice bucket challenge was mentioned 170,000 times in news media in the second half of 2014. Slacktivism was mentioned in conjunction with it 3,000 times. Though this number represents a small portion of total mentions, it nonetheless reveals a trending association.

Looking back further, we see that during the 12 months prior to the challenge (July 2013 to June 2014), the ALS Association received 6,819 media mentions, and the disease itself was covered 64,056 times. For the second half of 2014, the Association received a staggering 37,205 mentions, so in the short term, the challenge clearly made an impact. But what about lasting effects? Fast forward to 2015, long after the ice bucket challenge had frozen over, the ALS Association received 10,358 mentions (up 51.9% from the year prior to the campaign), and the disease itself was mentioned 93,299 times (up 45.6%).

ALS and ALS Association Mentions Prior the Challenge (July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014)


ALS and ALS Association Mentions After the Challenge (January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2015)


The numbers show that the challenge made a lasting difference on ALS awareness. Of course, even better news was reported July 25, when the ALS association announced a breakthrough. Thanks to proceeds from donations to the ice bucket challenge, the association was able to invest in Project MinE and sequence the genomes of thousands of ALS patients. As a result, NEK1, an ALS gene, was discovered and with it, a clearer path to identifying causes of the disease. Without the money raised by the ice bucket challenge and donated to the ALS Association, this would not have been possible.

What does this tell us about the ability that PR professionals have to create a lasting impact on a cause or brand?

For one, it shows that crossover to the mainstream is crucial. The Doppler effect of social media means that it is front and center for an instant, but then it’s gone. That’s one of the reasons why it is important to monitor and analyze social media in real-time, as very little can be done once the moment is gone and attention has turned elsewhere. On the other hand, once something crosses over and picks up the attention of news media, there can be a lasting effect on public interest.

And then there’s trendjacking, which we typically associate with an ephemeral and often opportunistic spike in coverage. Unlike trying to cash in on a story, the ALS Association was able to maintain its connection to the ice bucket challenge, and shape the general message around the disease. In the second half of 2014, the ALS Association received 37,205 mentions, more than double the amount of articles they received in the year prior or following combined. From July 2013 to June 2014, the ALS Association featured in 10.65% of articles talking about the disease. In the second half of 2014 however, they featured in 22.42% of articles mentioning ALS or the ice bucket challenge, ensuring that as many people reading about this new craze knew who it benefitted and what it was in aid of. This was a huge factor in ensuring that donations ended up in the right place, and helped put them at the center of the conversation regarding ALS. Even today, brand correlation between the ALS Association and the disease is still significantly higher than it was prior to the ice bucket challenge, which continues to help funnel donations to the right recipient.

Finally, it shows the importance of mass appeal. Although I don’t know anyone who has suffered from this disease, I took some time to learn more about it and the research being done to cure it. More importantly, I donated. I would never have been on any list for potential contributors, I simply saw something online that I could easily participate in. This campaign was not aimed at the people who had the disease or those wealthy enough to make significant single contributions. But it had broad enough appeal so that everyone could join in, have a little fun, donate money to a good cause, and absorb an important message.

A good portion of these people may have been slacktivists, and may never have encountered ALS before or since. That said, if these donations helped to find a gene which could one day lead to the cure of a debilitating illness that affects over 30,000 Americans, then it has been for the greater good. For that, the ALS Association should be very proud of the campaign they created, capitalized on, and put to great use. I am certain that the 10 seconds I spent freezing cold was a small price to pay for something that will benefit thousands in the future, and I thank the ALS Association for their work, and commend them for their campaign.

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