Science, Pharma, and Healthcare Writing and Public Relations   


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Understanding the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Viral Marketing in the Health Industry


Saturday, August 23, 2014

We live in a world where more people recognize Grumpy Cat (who, by the way, is getting her own Christmas movie) than Margaret Hamburg or Francis Collins. In this context, it makes sense that the best way to raise money for nonprofit health organizations nowadays is to take to the internet.


Philanthropy is possibly more important in the health industry than in any other sector. Hundreds of thousands of disease nonprofits exist in the US, from big names like the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association to tiny organizations trying to raise money for conditions you’ve never heard of, like acromegaly. Since the beginning of time, the best way for disease nonprofits to raise money has been to have a “development department," which is corporate-speak for “fundraising.” Traditionally, nonprofits try to raise money by mailing out cards asking for donations, producing PSAs and television commercials that tug at the heartstrings, and putting a “donate” button on their website.


But in this Brave New World where no one speaks to each other anymore or even knows how to make eye contact because everyone’s eyes are glued to their smartphones, simply hiring someone who knows how to write grant proposals and waiting for the cash to roll it just doesn’t cut it anymore.  


“For marketers, one of the coolest things about the web is that when an idea takes off, it can propel a brand or company to fame and fortune for free. Whatever you call it—viral, buzz, or word-of-mouse marketing—having other people tell your story drives action,” writes David Meerman Scott in The New Rules of Marketing and PR. “Many viral phenomena start innocently. Somebody creates something—a funny video clip, a cartoon, or a story—to amuse friends, one person sends it to another, and that person sends it to another, on and on.” As Scott notes, a “corporate approach” to making viral videos often feels fake, stilted, and, well, corporate. For the viral marketing stunt to work for any organization, nonprofit or otherwise, “the formula is a combination of some great (and free) web content (a video, a blog entry, or an e-book) that is groundbreaking or amazing or hilarious or involves a celebrity, plus a network of people to light the fire, and all with links that make it very easy to share,” says Scott.


Enter the Ice Bucket Challenge.


It begins with a couple of posts and videos on your Facebook feed that you scroll past and don’t take much interest in. It appears some of your friends are dumping ice water on their heads for some unknown reason, and challenging other friends to do so. Who knows why? You scroll on, looking for healthy recipes to make for dinner that your toddler won’t throw on the floor, on you, or on the dog, and don’t think much of it. After work you scroll through Facebook again on the train ride home, and notice more and more posts about something called the Ice Bucket Challenge. You see that people are apparently doing this to raise money for something called ALS, which you’ve never heard of. Consider your interest piqued.


Depending upon what type of person you are, you either next head to Google to find out what ALS is, or you head to YouTube and type in “Ice Bucket Challenge” to watch three hours of strangers’ hilarious reactions to that horrible moment when the ice water makes contact with their skin. Either way, the viral marketing has worked—you’re engaged. You’re now either likely to share a funny ice bucket video with a few friends online who you think might get a good laugh out of it or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you’ve started thinking about how and where to complete your own Ice Bucket Challenge. And while you’re online having fun with this latest silly escape from reality, you hardly realize that you’re actually learning something and helping others at the same time. Win-win.


One refreshing (pun intended) outcome of the ice bucket challenge is seeing celebrities get involved. They have more money to give than the friends on your Facebook feed. Plus, watching pretty, famous people dump water on themselves is for some reason more appealing than watching soccer moms and college students do the same thing. So the celebrity involvement not only raises more money for the cause, but also adds an element that makes people want to share the videos, garnering more widespread attention and awareness. Plus, celebrities get the media and fan attention they crave. More win-win.


So far, celebrities including Mark Wahlberg, Larry Bird, Lindsay Lohan, Conan O’Brien, George W. Bush, Gisele Bundchen, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, Mark Zuckerberg and even Bill Gates have all taken the challenge, most donating money in addition to helping to raise awareness of the disease and the viral phenomenon. But Verne Troyer’s is our favorite.


According to a recent WSJ article by Sumathi Reddy, the nonprofit ALS Association “raised $15.6 million in donations between July 29 and Aug. 18, compared with $1.8 million during the same period last year. Meanwhile, ALS Therapy Development Institute (TDI), a Boston-based nonprofit biotechnology organization, said it has raised $550,000 since Aug. 3, compared with about $110,000 during the same time period last year. And the New York City-based Project ALS, a nonprofit dedicated to funding scientific research, has raised about $116,000 over the last two weeks compared with just $1,000 from a handful of donors last year.”


By all accounts, the Ice Bucket Challenge has been a hit as far as creative marketing/PR health campaigns go in the health industry (even if its origins are still murky).


For your enjoyment, here are some other health campaigns that take serious topics and make them fun, all in the name of good heath:


This video of sexy men explaining the importance of self-breast checks for cancer.


This very effective condom commercial.


This biting dentist commercial.