Ice Bucket Update: Can Awareness & Social Media Change the World?

By: J.C. Craig

John_Maino_performs_the_ALS_Ice_Bucket_ChallengeThis week, news broke that 2014’s “Ice Bucket Challenge” phenomenon has made quite the impact two years later. On Monday, the ALS Association announced that the pop culture trend that encouraged participants to dump buckets of ice water on their heads helped lead to a major development in ALS research. We wrote about the Ice Bucket Challenge when discussing the most viral campaigns of all time.

CNN reports that just eight weeks after its inception, the Ice Bucket Challenge had helped raise over $115 million. One million of those dollars went towards a project at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The project, called Project MinE, is now being credited as having identified a gene that is responsible for ALS—or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The gene is being referred to as NEK1.

In case you missed all the videos on your Facebook newsfeed—the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign became a viral fad in the summer of 2014. Everyone from your next-door neighbor to Oprah shared his or her version in a video posted to some social media platform.

After someone doused themselves, they were given the opportunity to nominate other people they wanted to participate. The nominees had the choice to either donate money to the ALS Association or submit to the ice bucket.

For the most part, the Ice Bucket Challenge was deemed a fun way to support a worthy cause. As with every trend of the past decade, however, there were also a great deal of skeptics.

Some naysayers admitted to seeing some good in the campaign, but thought it was poorly executed. Others criticized it from top to bottom and assumed it did nothing but raise false awareness, claiming participants didn’t gain any real knowledge on the disease. Many deemed the sensation merely a form of 21st century “slacktivism”.

The most prevalent argument Bucket Challenge involved the choice offered in your nomination—either donate to a wonderful cause or pour water on your head. As Time wrote, “That means everyone you’ve ever seen dump water on themselves, per the rules, is not asked to donate. They may choose to, but the viral nature of this fad appears centered around an aversion to giving money”.

What this thinking fails to account for is the value of awareness. Most brand’s understand this concept and place a high value on being top of mind. As the article points out, millions of people dumping ice water over their head instead of donating money doesn’t achieve the goal of raising funds, nor does it educate everyone on what ALS stands for let alone the details of the disease. (Learn more about that here.) However, awareness can be a powerful thing. If you have ever tried asking for a donation for an unknown charity or an unknown disease you will know what I am talking about. Let’s take what we know about marketing and consumer decisions to purchase a product and apply it here. If we look at the purchase funnel –a marketing concept illustrated below –you’ll see that awareness is the first step in making a purchase. The same thinking applies to making a donation, you need be aware of a cause to donate to.


In the end, what some critics were pointing out was simply that awareness would necessarily convert into donations. However, having that step out of the way let those raising funds for ALS focus on the next four steps of the process. Also, the vast number of people now aware of ALS ensured hundreds of thousands of curious minds would research it on their own and percentage of them would be moved to donate to the cause.

What this week’s news has proven, though, is that the ability to choose the ice bucket did not seem to deter any donations. According to Forbes, the discovery of NEK1 is the third scientific breakthrough made possible by donations from the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Whether a campaign asks for donations outright or just seeks awareness for a cause, the Ice Bucket Challenge illustrates the idea that being top of mind can greatly increase the profitability of a foundation or product.

If you want another example of this, look for the color pink this October. Everyday Health has reported on the imbalance in the funding of different types of cancers. In a report from 2008, breast cancer came first in funding with a staggering $572.6 million. The second highest was prostate cancer with $285.5 million—noticeably less than breast cancer. This discrepancy can likely be attributed to the prominence of advertising and fundraising events for breast cancer led by foundations such as Susan G. Komen – who’s pink ribbon campaign has raised awareness and engagement around breast cancer exponentially.

With this week’s new, Ice Bucket Challenge will go down in history as an example of the value of awareness and viral campaigns as a source for social change. With the right idea and a worthwhile cause, social media has the potential to be an essential component in making a difference.