Wednesday, August 27

Is The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Really A Win?

When marketers think about outcomes, it's hard to argue with numbers. The ALS Association has earned $88.5 million in donations (and counting) this year versus $2.5 million during the same period of time last year.

The nonprofit organization bumped up other numbers too. According to the only national nonprofit organization fighting Lou Gehrig's Disease, they've added 1.9 million in new donors. The reason this new donor count is important is it demonstrates that many of the people taking the ice bucket challenge are donating too. And even if they don't donate, it doesn't matter.

The truncated rules of the ice bucket challenge are pretty simple. If you accept the ice bucket challenge, then you donate $10 and nominate three more people versus donating $100 outright. Your decision has to be made in 24 hours. All nomination videos are shared on social networks.

In sum, this is a viral campaign built on a pyramid scheme that resurrects the campy but famous Faberge Organics tagline "and she told two friends ... and she told two friends" (plus one). So even if someone doesn't donate or refuses, there is a good chance someone else will accept and donate.

There is nothing wrong with that. So why all the pushback? 

As the ALS Association campaign continues to succeed exponentially, the ice bucket challenge has picked up its fair share of detractors. Most of the pushback revolves around seven complaints.

1. Whether or not these donations will cut into other charities.
2. Whether or not it is a giant waste of water and resources.
3. Whether or not animal testing is justified to benefit humans.
4. Whether or not clinical trials justify stem cell research.
5. Whether or not it reinforces slacktivism, which hurts activism.
6. Whether or not this cause is more important than another.
7. Whether or not the challenge has worn out its welcome.

All seven have varied degrees of merit, depending on personal perspective. But other people don't think so, with a few people coming out against those who are against the challenge. So mostly, ice bucket challenge haters beware. Or maybe not. Participation is always best with your eyes wide open.

Matt Damon, for example, tried to demonstrate this by using toilet water instead of drinking water. Doing so created an opportunity to promote clean drinking water in addition to the ALS Association. For other ethical or moral dilemmas, of course, there is no middle ground. Respect that, if nothing else.

Even with some people opting out and other people tired of the challenge, the campaign has reached a tipping point. Two days ago, the ice bucket challenge had only raised $70.2 million. Yesterday, it raised $79.7 million. The numbers suggest the campaign is holding steady at around $9 million a day.

So with all things considered, is the ALS ice bucket challenge a win?

Social media, and social networks in particular, has created a weird obsession with labeling something a win or fail. The ice bucket challenge isn't really either, even if it is a windfall.

On one hand, the organization has clearly raised a record that will likely stand for a long time. It also gained signification attention (and some awareness, which is different), more than it has in a long time. It's also likely that the organization will retain a percentage of those first time donors next year.

On the other hand, the vast majority of donors will not likely donate again. It's also unlikely (but not impossible) that this will become a sustainable action (or non-action as some people like to claim). It might even result in pullback next year, with people saying they did that last year. They did it and they're done, with some people still not sure why they participated in the challenge.

In short, the campaign wasn't brilliant as much as it was the right one at the right time. And as marketers, the real challenge will not be in celebrating the windfall, but in developing a bridge campaign that can transform flash-in-the-pan attention into educational awareness and sustainable action. If the ALS Association can do that, then this campaign (regardless of money raised) is a win.

Otherwise, it can best be described as a happy accident, one that other organizations ought to be wary about trying to duplicate (unless they are prepared to take a shot in the dark). But more than that, the real tell is what happens next. The ALS Association has a tremendous opportunity to create an endowment that will sustain a higher level of research for years to come (unless it believes it is close enough to a cure to push it across the finish line) and nurture support beyond the confines of this lucky long shot (while weathering the strain that comes with it).

Sure, everyone can expect more complaints about the challenge. Some are symptoms of success. Some open up dialogue for other social needs. And some provide a suitable level of transparency because there is nothing worse than someone who regrets their donation because they didn't know this or that. None of these complaints, however, will diminish what the organization has accomplished in terms of fundraising.

So maybe the question that needs to be asked isn't whether the campaign won or lost but whether the campaign achieved its mission to become the most trusted source of information for Lou Gehrig's Disease while demonstrating compassion. And beyond that, like every marketer ought to know, the best question to ask is not whether this is a win but what could the ALS Association have done better, what can it do better next time, and what its obligation is to all those people who supported it.
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