The Number 1 Rule for Creating Viral Campaigns? Don’t Overthink It.

The Number 1 Rule for Creating Viral Campaigns? Don’t Overthink It.

 In Advocacy Relations, Digital Media, PR Strategy, Stakeholder Engagement

If you live in the Northeast and are active on social, by now you’ve seen it – a 30-second to 1 minute selfie video that starts with a quick preamble and culminates in the video subject’s dumping a bucket of ice water over their head. It’s the #IceBucketChallenge, raising public awareness of and funds for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It’s also one of the most wildly successful viral awareness campaigns seen in recent months – using social tagging, the campaign has spread far beyond its Boston roots in a matter of weeks, and as a result, the national organization for research and advocacy for ALS has seen donations jump ten-fold. That’s not a typo – ten-foldJPA's Regan Hiatt participates in the Ice Bucket Challenge

Viral success like this doesn’t come around too often and isn’t readily replicated, so it prompted us to ask: what are the elements that are making it so successful? And, why this and not some other challenge? First, the campaign’s formula is profoundly simple, pulling from two tried-and-true social maxims: people are willing to do silly things on camera for an audience, and people like to play tag. Tapping into these simple impulses forms the basis for the campaign. Its chief appeal lies in its ease of adoption; no one is doing anything particularly dangerous (unlike the cinnamon challenge) – and tagging friends to become part of the club within a short time-frame (in this case, 24 hours) either by filming their own video or donating to the cause ensures a broad message spread and opens up donation opportunities to disparate and unrelated audiences.

But why is this particular approach is so successful? In part, we can say it’s due to the fact that it began at the micro-level – in true grassroots fashion. But while other groups have tried the dare approach before – none has gone viral in the same way. Although months old, the #IceBucketChallenge campaign really took off when the brother of former Boston College baseball team captain, Pete Frates (who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012), posted his challenge video in late July. Then, Team Frate Train, the family and friends of Pete Frates posted their version on July 29. In it, they dare a few friends to do it and give them 24 hours to meet the challenge. From there, it soon went wild.

By no means does the campaign assume a top-down approach, and it is utterly organic – from what we can see, there were no PR firms involved in crafting messaging and no carefully (and often overwrought) timing documents outlining how to pinpoint audience accuracy. There were no focus groups to test the messaging or the format. Because of this, it is instead fresh, impromptu, and fun, even while underscoring a serious disease. Detractors say it isn’t serious enough – that it’s just another form of Slacktivism. But that freshness and ease – the combination of grassroots creativity mixed with a tag-you’re-it spirit – is what makes it work and what makes people want to participate. And there’s no doubt that it’s building awareness of and, by extension, lending financial support to the cause.

It’s likely that we’ll see more campaigns like this in the near future, but it remains to be seen as to whether they will see the same level of success. As we know, this approach didn’t work for everyone – such is the nature of organic campaigns. Sometimes a top-down approach is the right approach – but in building it, it is critical to keep in mind the elements that made this particular campaign so perfect: simplicity, creativity and social.

What we can take away, as communicators, is this baseline lesson – don’t discount the creativity that simmers among your audience, and most importantly, don’t overthink the approach. Open the gates and let your audience stretch their legs. You just might be surprised by how well they come through.