ice bucket challenge
The Ice Bucket Challenge in action. (Photo: Lindsey Bauman, AP)

If you haven’t heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge, you probably haven’t been spending enough time avoiding work by checking your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram streams.

This viral monster of a charity initiative is raising money and awareness for the ALS Association (ALS is more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”).  It is so copiously mentioned on social media channels that, in measuring the chatter in our social media monitoring tool, we returned over half a million results between midnight and 8AM PST today.

Over 1.2 million videos of people pouring buckets of ice water over their heads have been uploaded; the ALS Association reports that donations went from $1.4M on August 12th to $31.5M as of today.

Now, the California-bred conservationist in me is wincing at the thought of millions of gallons of perfectly good drinking water being tossed away, particularly in a drought – and this has in fact been one of the primary critiques of the Ice Bucket Challenge.  (Whether or not ALS will give a portion of their proceeds to charity: water is unclear, but it would be a pretty interesting PR move.)

The marketer in me, though, has to applaud this stellar effort by ALS.org – they have managed to pull off what is likely to be the most-discussed charity initiative on social channels ever, and that is no small feat.  I did a little social listening to see what was trending within the Ice Bucket Challenge discussions themselves.  Here’s the word cloud:

ice bucket challenge
If there was any doubt that the Ice Bucket Challenge has gone viral, the appearance of Sheryl Sandberg, Chris Christie, Jenna Bush and Charlie Sheen in the same word cloud should erase it.

 

Charlie Sheen and I seem to see eye-to-eye for once – he dumped $10,000 over his head instead of wasting water.  Indeed, the virality of this campaign has made its way into seemingly unlikely celebrity inner circles, with famous folks calling each other out to participate.

Yes, all the cool kids are doing it.

The most interesting piece of this campaign, though, isn’t the celebrity component: it’s the sheer power of earned social media to raise awareness for a cause that most of us probably hadn’t heard of before something popped up in our Facebook feed.  There have been many articles written about this campaign, criticizing it for enabling “slacktivism” – the “armchair activism” of the social media age.

But here is the thing about armchair activism in the social media age:

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sales funnel
Nonprofit marketing efforts follow the same model as any other sales process: they sell an idea of value with the intention of getting someone to buy into that idea enough to spend money on it.

While it’s true that pouring a bucket of freezing ice water over your head and challenging 3 other friends to participate isn’t the same thing as donating to ALS.org, that’s beside the point: in a socially networked age, armchair activism actually has a value in exposing people who would otherwise have never even heard of a cause (and in the case of ALS, I’m one of them) to that cause.

Awareness is at the top of any purchase funnel, and in a nonprofit fundraising model that purchase is a donation.  In any case, assuming that everyone who’s willing to take a photo or video of themselves in a freezing baptism would otherwise be volunteering or donating to a cause is a pretty big leap.  In the case of ALS.org, they have given folks who would, for the most part, be otherwise disengaged with their cause a fun excuse to post a silly selfie-for-good.

Nonprofit marketing depends on relationship marketing.  Personal giving is personal, after all, and someone’s willingness to donate to charity depends pretty solidly on two things: (1) cause affinity, and (2) brand affinity.  In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the ALS Association is giving folks a fun, refreshing way to raise awareness and money for their cause, and this allows them to form brand relationships, however briefly, with people who don’t have the cause affinity – and to earn exposure to new social communities.

So, I raise a virtual bucket of ice water to ALS for an incredibly well-conceived and well-executed campaign.  When the Foo Fighters and George W. Bush are doing the same thing as Cristiano Ronaldo and Charlie Sheen (and it’s not a line dance at the Kennedy Center Awards), you know that something’s gone right in an awareness campaign.