The ice bucket challenge: Definitely don’t try this at the office


Getting people to dump ice water on their heads for a worthy cause is actually harder than it sounds. Here, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge while in Ocean City. (John Wagner/The Washington Post)

By all accounts, the Ice Bucket Challenge has been one of the most popular viral marketing campaigns of the year, already raising over $15 million for ALS research and becoming a social media sensation. Over the summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge has already resulted in over 1.2 million videos and 15 million comments, posts or likes on Facebook. By some accounts, there are nearly 50,000 tweets per hour about the #IceBucketChallenge. Celebrities taking part in the Ice Bucket Challenge include famous athletes, top politicians, Hollywood stars and business icons such as Bill Gates.

Which is what makes it so dangerous.

That’s because anything this popular is bound to get its share of copycat imitators. Already, marketers are dissecting what elements have made the campaign so successful, in an effort to reverse-engineer this campaign for other clients. The fact of the matter is that creating a viral marketing campaign from scratch is close to impossible. You can’t just walk into a marketing agency’s office and say, “Make me a viral marketing campaign.” Otherwise, everyone would do it.

Bill Gates accepted Mark Zuckerberg's ice bucket challenge to raise support of ALS, but not before he tweaked some design flaws. (YouTube/The Gates Notes)

With 20/20 hindsight, of course, the Ice Bucket Challenge will look like pure innovation genius. There were so many celebrity endorsers that it’s hard to keep track. There was a tremendous show of grassroots support for a worthy cause. There was something that was so fun and easy to do – dumping a bucket of ice water on your head in the middle of summer – that anybody could do it. (Well, almost anyone.) It was an activity almost tailor-made for the way we use and consume social media. And, most importantly, you had the built-in viral element of having each participant name three additional people to take the challenge.

But that’s not the real story of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The real Ice Bucket Challenge actually grew organically out of the casual activity of a bunch of athletes just having fun, and it wasn’t expected to go viral. As Will Oremus of Slate points out, the Ice Bucket Challenge actually started out as just a way for professional athletes to film themselves doing something stupid — the charity angle was added in later. It was more of a dare than anything else. In fact, some trace the origin of the Ice Bucket Challenge back to much earlier in 2014, before things really started to take off in early August. The famous #IceBucketChallenge hashtag only appeared after several different iterations.

Without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, then, who could have imagined that dumping ice water on one’s head would have become the basis for the year’s most successful viral marketing campaign? If this idea had been pitched to a slick marketing agency at the beginning of the summer, most likely the answer would have been crickets. Or, as one Internet meme put it, “So let me get this straight… You waste clean water as a challenge, in order to avoid raising money for charity?”

People believing that they will be able to replicate the phenomenal success of the Ice Bucket Challenge are suffering from the same fallacy: The belief that something this successful can be replicated again and again by just about anyone, as long as you can understand the key ingredients that made it successful in the first place.

From LeBron James to Justin Timberlake to Oprah Winfrey, watch 17 celebrities dump icy water over their heads to raise awareness and money for the ALS Association. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

If you think about it, this fallacy is behind the success of a good number of books that ever make the business bestseller list. Take a quick look at the current bestsellers on the Amazon business bestseller list for 2014. You’ll see a handful of books that tap directly into this innate human belief that it’s possible to replicate other people’s success. It’s what makes us analyze the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and believe that we too are just a few easy habits away from emulating the success of some of the world’s most successful people. It’s what makes us think we too can become high achievers by following the path of the world’s outliers. It’s harder than it sounds.

Yet this is the same logic that will make people believe that they can create a new, even bigger Ice Bucket Challenge. However, assuming that a cause you think up and promote will be taken up by some of the most famous names in the universe – the likes of Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates — is making a pretty big assumption. And remember, the Ice Bucket Challenge was not something that was reverse-engineered by a marketing agency attempting to create a viral marketing campaign from scratch.

The real Ice Bucket Challenge grew organically over a period of time and underwent a number of different permutations before it ever hit it big. That’s an important point to keep in mind. So, if someone suggests “doing something like the Ice Bucket Challenge” at one of your office’s next brainstorming sessions, just nod your head quietly, thank them for their idea, and quickly move on to the next idea.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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