As far as social media phenomenons go, you would be hard-pressed to find one as
resoundingly successful as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. In a stunning PR move, The ALS
Association
not only furthered awareness for ALS as an illness but increased its annual funding
for research across the world by 187 percent, raising over $220M worldwide. The Challenge
was an overnight success that even The Association itself has yet to replicate on such a
massive scale.

But the Ice Bucket Challenge was not initially started by The ALS Association; in fact, people
were challenging each other to douse themselves in cold water for charity as far back as the
’90s. It wasn’t until golfer Chris Kennedy, whose husband, Anthony, had ALS, took the plunge
that the Challenge’s focus was shifted towards the disease and, conversely, The ALS
Association. From there, it spread like wildfire, attracting the involvement of figures like Justin
Beiber, LeBron James, and even Former US President George W. Bush and the future
successor to the Presidency, Donald Trump, all doused themselves in ice water to promote the
cause.

While only 40-50% of participants went on to make a charitable donation, the viral nature of the
Challenge meant that millions of people got involved. The movement benefited from the
personalized nature of social media, the “calling-out” of others to take the plunge, and the
relatively low threshold of entry meant that just about anyone could complete the Challenge and
feel a sense of accomplishment for doing so. It rippled outward, from personal feeds to the local
news to articles on websites like The Guardian, the Challenge was infectious.

In 2014, at the height of The Ice Bucket Challenge, I saw firsthand how infectious it was,
especially among my age demographic. I remember having my sister film me while I dumped a
storage bin—the closest thing I could find to a bucket—of ice water on my head. The allure of
challenging your friends to “do it or donate” was too much for me, and many like me, to resist. It
was difficult to go a day without hearing some mention of The Challenge. It was akin to a
popularity contest; the more you were tagged, the more engaged you became, and the more
friends you tagged in return. The only charity event that I can remember getting close to the
level of the Challenge was St. Baldrick’s Day. This much older tradition similarly incorporates
charitable donation with a social activity that has a low threshold for entry.

But that doesn’t mean The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was not without its flaws. The nature of
the trend led to the criticism that those who engaged with it were not learning about the cause
that The ALS Association is dedicated to solving. Despite this, The Association decided to make
the Challenge a yearly event, “every August until a cure [for ALS].” This is a goal that the
nonprofit continues to uphold to this day.

However, 2015 did not see the rousing social media success that it had the prior year, and with
every subsequent year, the Challenge has seen fewer and fewer participants. Thanks to the
fickle nature of social media, most moved on to the next big trend, leaving the Challenge and its charitable ties behind. That does not mean it has been forgotten. However, many are still
dedicated to keeping it a yearly tradition as the hunt for a cure continues. Just this year,
Yonkers, New York, held their annual Ice Bucket Challenge, dedicated to the memory of Pat
Quinn, one of the ALS activists who helped catapult the Challenge into the mainstream.

There is a lot to be learned from The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on a PR level. In many ways,
the phenomenon fully solidified social media as the next big tool to raise awareness and
inspired many charities to reconsider how they operate fundraisers. While not without its
caveats, for example, the fast-paced, gone in a week nature of social media, viral marketing is a
valuable practice for any organization looking to expand its reach and attract a younger, more
challenging to engage demographic.