If anyone still believes that social media can’t make have an impact on spreading the word, just look at how the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral in the last month. (In case you went to the Moon and haven’t been near your tv or smart phone in a while, the Challenge is an activity that involves dumping a bucket of ice water on someone’s head to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). According to Wikipedia (the fact that there is already an article on Wikipedia is interesting enough in itself), a common stipulation is that nominated people have 24 hours to comply or forfeit by way of a charitable financial donation.

As the word spread about the Challenge and my Facebook and Instagram feeds were flooded with my friends taking the plunge, I became fascinated with the peer pressure to participate. Of course if you are challenged, which I was, you don’t want to be the person that wimps out and doesn’t participate, especially because it is for a worthy cause. But, I wondered if we were really building awareness for ALS and if the frenzy was resulting in donations. Fortunately, by most accounts to date, it is a success on both fronts. According to an article on Forbes as of Aug. 20, the ALS Association had received $31.5 million in donations compared to $1.9 million during the same time period last year.

The Forbes articles noted that in addition to raising funds, from a branding standpoint, the Challenge works as it “offers an example of a brand harnessing the energy of a narcissistic fad on social networks in service to the brand itself. The usual elements are there, an act that is incongruous, not easy to do and screams ‘look at me.’ Yet here, the incidental meaning is not at all disassociated from the personal meaning. I’m making myself uncomfortable for ALS. I’m recruiting the anti-ALS cause to enhance my personal capital. Alas for marketers looking for low-cost market impact, few commercial brands enhance personal capital. Few are as powerful as cause brands.”

As a marketer though, it is important to recognize that just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to or should, especially from a corporate standpoint. Several lists of naysayers, or “haters”, has emerged. One list includes the state of California because of drought conditions, as well as the American Life League, a Catholic pro-life education organization that does not support the Association’s use of embryonic stem cell research as the reason for its lack of support for the charity. The Department of Defense also banned its members, whether in uniform or not, from participation as they didn’t want the perception they endorse it. So, is it still a success?

If you are now more confused than ever about what we can learn from this Challenge, here are a few observations:

  1. Cause marketing can be very effective, especially if you can harness our culture’s narcissistic tendencies.
  2. No matter how safe you think your chosen cause may be, there will be haters. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t march ahead, but be sure you have a crisis plan in place and have explored the negative possibilities.
  3. Based on the success of this Challenge, other viral scenarios are likely to emerge. Be prepared for how, as an organization, you will handle the challenge, as well as any direction you give to your employees.