The charitable outcomes of viral campaigns

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Mediaworks Ice Bucket ChallengeOver the last few weeks, Facebook newsfeeds have been filled with videos of people — including Mediawork-ers — tipping buckets of cold water and ice over themselves, all in the name of charity. A few months ago this would have seemed quite strange, but since the trend took off at the end of July we’ve grown accustomed to seeing friends, family and colleagues drenched in ice-cold water for the #IceBucketChallenge.

Viral fundraising

The craze itself is inextricably linked to raising money for charity, most often for ALS or motor neurone disease, but was not started by any specific organisation. This form of social media campaign has become a highly effective way for charities to increase their rate of donations. Between July 20th and August 18th, the ALS Association received $15.6 million, compared to just $1.8 million in the same period last year. It also enjoyed a great deal of online attention, as the ALS Wikipedia page had 2,251,453 views in August 2014 alone.

It is not only ALS charities that have benefited from this trend, however, as other organisations have received donations from supporters as part of the #IceBucketChallenge. Over 85,000 people have now taken part in the name of Macmillan, raising over £250,000 in donations. Wateraid also started receiving donations from the challenge in July, and responded by encouraging people not to waste water by taking part by a pond, swimming pool or beach.

Celebrity hype

The funds raised from this social media craze are impressive, and have undoubtedly been helped along by celebrity participants. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, David Beckham, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg have all helped to further the campaign’s popularity, showing just how much celebrity support can do for a viral campaign.

But despite its current links with Hollywood, #icebucketchallenge had rather humble beginnings. One early video, posted in April from the US, shows a man jumping into a cold swimming pool with his son before challenging others to do the same or donate to a fundraiser for the United Pentecostal Church International. The first ‘cold water challenge’ videos did not involve buckets of water, but simply involved participants immersing themselves in pools, lakes and oceans.

Going viral

The trend then began to spread around the world, gaining momentum as people continued to nominate each other. In July, the Auckland division of the Cancer Society of New Zealand set up a page on Everyday Hero, encouraging people to take part and asking participants to stay safe. So far, this page has raised $124,562.11.

Following this, pro golfers including Brittany Lincicome, Rebecca Lee-Bentham and Sandra Gal began to post videos of themselves on Instagram, in which they took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge. These videos did not mention ALS as the specific cause to donate to, until Florida golfer Chris Kennedy released a video that called for his nominees to donate to the ALS Foundation. This may have been the video that triggered the ALS focus for the majority of ice bucket videos.

Throughout July, videos of the challenge were posted on Facebook with the instruction to donate to the ALS Association. This included a video by Pete Frates, a former Boston College athlete who is battling the illness, which led to large increases in donations towards the end of July. By August the hashtag had invaded newsfeeds the world over and was almost synonymous with ALS.

Getting involved

Although the trend was not started by any specific organisation, the relevant charities helped it along by sharing videos on Facebook and Twitter. Macmillan also used PPC to spread the word further, and its Ice Bucket Challenge instruction page was the top organic search result for a week. Although Macmillan was criticised for its ‘hijacking’ of the hashtag, it was quick to point out that the challenge did not belong to the ALS Association in any way, and that cancer charities were some of the first to benefit from the surge in donations.

The unforeseen popularity of #IceBucketChallenge is similar to that of the #NoMakeupSelfie trend that took hold last March, which involved women posting makeup-free selfies on social media channels. They would then donate to Cancer Research and nominate their friends to do the same. This hashtag was not created by Cancer Research, but it still managed to raise £8 million in six days. Celebrity participants in this case included Cheryl Cole, Cara Delevingne, Rihanna and Beyoncé, whose makeup-free photos prompted people across the world to take part in the viral fundraising campaign.

Although these campaigns often receive criticism regarding their relevancy, effectiveness and branding, the craze itself seems to continue growing in spite of any negative commentary. No organisation can own a hashtag movement, and attempts to heavily brand them come with the risk of reducing their popularity, so all charities can really do is wait for the opportunity to help the trend along. By listening to audiences who are already beginning to engage with the hashtag and responding to their interests, organisations can maximise their involvement and build upon the existing increase in donations and awareness.


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