The Ultimate Viral Campaign – #IceBucketChallenge

After our class on managing virality a few weeks ago, I tried to think of the most viral video I had viewed in the past few years. Of course I had seen the JK wedding video, but my memory was drawing a blank when trying to recall others that had a similar widespread impact. And then it hit me. It wasn’t an individual video, more of a campaign. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge! I’m guessing everyone in this class has at least heard about this if they didn’t participate in it. The ice bucket challenge swept the nation in 2014 and was particularly meaningful to me since it all started right here at Boston College when our baseball program decided to rally around a former captain, Pete Frates.

Pete was diagnosed with ALS in March of 2012 at the age of 27. I first met Pete about 6 weeks later when I was an Athletics intern working with the baseball program. At that point, he already had a ridiculously positive outlook on his diagnosis and what he would do with his life from that point forward. He saw it as an opportunity to give a relatively unknown, but fatal disease a platform for awareness. Pete decided he would become the face of ALS and do everything in his power to bring it to the forefront of medical research. Although Pete played baseball at BC and played a bit in the minor leagues following graduation, he was not a MLB player and did not have the network of rich, powerful people to call in favors. What he did have was the heart and soul of Boston College and a fierce determination to bring awareness to his cause.

Over the next two years, Pete, his family, and BC baseball were dedicated to helping Pete in his battle against ALS. They held small-scale fundraisers, got the Red Sox involved through the relationship between BC and the Fenway Sports Group, and started to gain some local and regional attention. Then in the summer of 2014, everything changed. They decided to take to social media with a call-to-action campaign to attract large-scale involvement. The idea for the ice bucket challenge was actually not unique, it was borrowed from another cause in college athletics, the Play for Kay campaign among women’s basketball. While they started the ice bucket challenge after the end of the 2013-14 women’s basketball season, it really only gained traction within their sport. Our baseball coaches decided that this was a campaign with great potential and decided to adopt the idea for ALS awareness in the early summer of 2014.


The idea was simple: dump a bucket full of ice water over your head, film it and post to social media, and challenge 3 friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate $100. By August, the campaign went viral. It started with BC Athletics programs challenging alums in professional sports (Matt Ryan, Doug Flutie, Luke Kuechly. Then expanded to other notable people with a BC connection including Apple CMO Phil Schiller. The professional athletes tapped into their networks expanding throughout all of the major sports as far as LeBron James, Big Papi, and Aaron Rodgers and eventually made its way some of the biggest names and media programs in the country including Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake, the Voice cast and Good Morning America. The Ice Bucket Challenge broke media barriers as traditional and social media amplified each other to gain maximum attention. People were even doing it at their own weddings! And then groups got competitive and decided to up the ante by making their ice buckets bigger and bigger using dump trucks, Zambonis, and even one helicopter.




So it is pretty clear to see that the campaign went viral. But, was it successful? Remember that Pete Frates’ main goal was to raise awareness for ALS, and secondary goal was to increase funding for medical research. Let’s take a look at the results:

  • ALS was the #1 searched for “What is _____?” on Google in 2014
  • 17 million people participated in the challenge
  • 5 million people donated to the ALS Association
  • Over $115 million was raised in just 6 weeks

And here’s a look at how that money was used:

ALS bucket.png

While there is still a long way to go in the fight against ALS, this campaign goes to show the power of utilizing social media networks to bring attention to meaningful causes. Most people don’t know that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has become an annual campaign that takes place every August, but it has never come close to the impact it had in 2014. This is likely because it was something new and fun at the time for millions of people to participate in. Now the challenge is to figure out what’s next. What will the next major viral campaign be and how can it have a similar impact? What will be the next #viralchallenge?



  1. Addison LeBeau · ·

    Great post! Of course, I am familiar with the ice bucket challenge but I had no idea that it was started here at Boston College! Knowing that background, I am even more impressed with the network connections utilized to help spread the virility of the campaign and have it reach people like Oprah. I think that naturally charity-based viral campaigns tend to do well – after all, who’s going to say no to something like that? I think the ice bucket challenge shows us that it doesn’t matter how unknown the cause, as long as the ‘challenge’ has the right qualities that will boost its virility, it will catch on.

  2. mmerckbc · ·

    I agree with Addition – this is a great post and a clever example of virality! The ice bucket challenge was big the summer before my freshman year at BC and it definitely made me proud to become an Eagle. So often in the news, we hear about how social media is negatively impacting our society and younger generations. This story is a great example of how social media can, in fact, have a positive influence and connect people around the world for an important cause.

    1. mmerckbc · ·

      Whoops — wish there was an edit button on comments! Autocorrect didn’t like @addisonbc2018 ‘s name

  3. danmiller315 · ·

    The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was my introduction into BC as an incoming freshman in the summer of 2014. I remember making my video and posting it to my social media pages. Being able to take part made me feel apart of a bigger community. I think that what has made the Ice Bucket Challenge so successful and memorable is that it was able to transition from a viral trend to a call to action. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the Ice Bucket Challenge had its moment in the sun for a summer in 2014 and was never really heard from again, but the Frates family has done an excellent job of keeping the fight against ALS in the forefront. I think that the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge outside of its virality shows that companies/organizations can lengthen the lifetime of viral moments if they bring together a community to work towards a common goal.

  4. Molly Pighini · ·

    Great post, @mariaknoerr. It’s hard to believe this happened back in 2014, as it remains so vivid in my mind. I agree with everyone’s comments above, but I think @danmiller315 has made some particularly sharp points regarding community and a call to action. The Ice Bucket Challenge successfully utilized the community aspect of social media, creating a viral reaction. By having participants share it on their pages and call 3 others to participate, the initiators broadened their reach exponentially and created a compelling reason for others to take part. Once it spread, people wanted to join because it was something everyone around them was doing. I think the “call to action” aspect also strengthened the cause because it gave people something to do rather than just something to talk about. If you didn’t post within the prescribed time frame, you were supposed to donate. Even if you did post, you should donate because it’s a great cause. The specific act of pouring a bucket of ice over your head was also smart because it was fun. It gave people something to laugh over together, further increasing the appeal. In terms of what’s next, it is difficult to say. I believe, however, if other campaigns look to imitate the strengths of the Ice Bucket Challenge, they will find success as well.

  5. HenryChenChen · ·

    Nice post, it is interesting to know the story behind the Ice Bucket Challenge. I agree with your point that such campaign can be so successful because it can call-to-action, which makes your friends and celebrities to take the challenge. Besides, the challenge itself is worth to watch, who don’t want to see such people like Mark Zuckerberg and Lebron James be dumped with a full bucket of iced water? This helps the campaign to draw a lot of attention from the public through different social media. Based on the statistics, it seems the Campaign is very successful.

  6. oliverhowe14 · ·

    I remember this challenge like it was yesterday. This is the first one (and maybe only one, I can’t really think of any others) that I have actually participated in because this has seemed like the only constructive one out there. I remember the first challenge video I ever saw was the fire challenge, where people covered themselves in a flammable liquid and lit themselves on fire.
    But the Ice Bucket Challenge was different. It was a constructive challenge that helped to tackle a terrible disease. I contributed to it, and it made me feel really good when they found a cure because I felt like I helped to do that.

  7. roarkword · ·

    You made a great point about the measurable success of the challenge. ALS was for a long time known to those who grew up with him and baseball as Lou Gehrig’s disease; this provided awareness, but as time passed and his memory faded generation to generation, the awareness faded as well. The challenge was a revival effort, to keep the knowledge of ALS from disappearing and it worked fantastically. Not only were people interested in learning more about it (as evidenced by the Google searches) but real, tangible funding efforts were achieved as well. And once again baseball was a common link to the disease just as it was for Lou Gehrig, a fitting tribute and an entertaining viral cause.

  8. Nice post. This is a theme that has been running through this course since the challenge itself. Really spectacular example.

  9. phanauer1 · ·

    Great post – I really like your focus on the “call to action” idea and how that made people more motivated to get involved. I didn’t know that the Ice Bucket Challenge was started by a BC alum, so that makes me proud to be a part of the cause in more ways than one! One thing that I think is also really notable about the challenge is that the money raised has directly resulted in research breakthroughs. Because of the funding, a research group called Project MinE found a link between ALS and a specific mutated gene that was commonly passed down hereditarily. This was one of the first great strides in understanding ALS and finding the causes and hopefully, eventually, a cure. Here is the link to an article with more information, but it’s really interesting and great to link the efforts of a viral social media campaign to actual progress and results!

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