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Dear Betty: Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

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By Dear Betty |January 14, 2015
MarketingStrategic Consulting

BucketDear Betty: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $100 MILLION to date for the ALS Association. Why didn’t we think of that?!? I know we can’t just copy it outright, but is there anything associations can learn from the phenomenal success of this viral campaign?

Gentle Reader:

Ah yes, I think the entire nonprofit industry (both associations and fundraising organizations) is being bit by the little green-eyed monster of envy at the moment. Why DIDN’T we think of that?

Of course, even the great success of the Ice Bucket Challenge has not been completely without controversy, with some debating the wisdom of donating to disease specific charities, some people protesting being called out publicly, and a potential PR disaster when the ALS Association flirted briefly with trying to trademark the challenge. Not to mention the difficulties posed by a $100 million windfall to an organization with a typical annual revenue of around $19 million (not that that isn’t a problem we’d all like to have).

All that aside, of course, it was highly effective.

What can associations take away from this?

First, despite what some people might try to sell you, there is no guaranteed way to create a viral campaign. In fact, there is no such thing as creating a viral campaign – you can only create a campaign and hope it goes viral. There are some good practices you should follow that can help, but there’s never a guarantee. And viral doesn’t happen overnight or necessarily on the first try, so you have to be patient.

What else can we learn?

The Ice Bucket Challenge was fun. Take away: stop being so damn serious all the time! These people are trying to cure Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is, to coin a phrase, “as serious as a heart attack.” Trust me, your association can get away with being a little more loose and actually communicating like a human being, too.

 Video was integral to the Ice Bucket Challenge, which made it highly share-able as a result. The keys to using social media in any campaign is that your efforts need to be share-able, as well as having the ability to reach your audience quickly and across large distances. The best way to do that is by sharing video and compelling images. This also gets people involved, especially when they see one of their favorite celebrities. Now I ask you this reader, what is your association’s plan to use video? It shouldn’t be, “we don’t have one.” Nor should it be, “we have a YouTube channel full of long, boring, talking head videos.” Videos are a great way to get your members and audiences to interact with you and especially one another to help spread the word of what you are trying to achieve.

The Ice Bucket Challenge gave people options. While most who were challenged dumped a bucket of ice water over their heads AND donated, the Challenge was specifically constructed to require participants to do only one. So you could give if you had the means. And if you didn’t, you could still help spread the word about the issue. Does your association provide a variety of ways for people to be involved, or do you have to volunteer only in certain ways? Do you have to donate only in certain ways? Do you have to be a paying member to participate?

The Ice Bucket Challenge didn’t originate from a brainstorming session or strategic planning retreat at the ALS Association. Although the full history is a bit more complicated than the heartwarming story we’ve all heard featuring Pete Frates, it wasn’t an association-generated program. What is your association doing to solicit unique, creative, and interesting ideas from your members and other audiences? Your staff and volunteer leaders don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, and you don’t own the association – your members and other audiences do. Create a way for your members and audiences to be heard, and the best place to start is reaching out on social media!

What about you, Gentle Readers? Has your association changed anything about the way you operate based on the overwhelming success of another organization’s great idea? Share your experiences in the comments.

Dear Betty
Dear Betty: Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

“Dear Betty” is the association advice columnist alter-ego of Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, CEO and Chief Strategist of Spark Consulting LLC. Elizabeth has over sixteen years of experience helping associations grow, in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, garden, and blog about the Philadelphia Eagles.

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