This Is Why You Did The Ice Bucket Challenge

What makes a meme go viral? Why do people like cat gifs? Why do we feel so much pressure to chuck ice cold water on our heads? Let us explain...

What makes a meme go viral?

If we're going to talk about memes, we need to be clear on what they are:

An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.
— Oxford Dictionary

Memes, according to this video by Ryan Larkin, all have four rules in common:

  1. Easy to copy
  2. Has multiple levels
  3. Evokes emotion
  4. Shouldn't seem fake

We're going to focus on rules 3 and 4 in relation to the current phenomenon sweeping across Facebook pages everywhere - the Ice Bucket Challenge. My Facebook news feed has been filled with videos of people throwing ice water over themselves for the past two weeks. This is no exaggeration - I would estimate that every 1 in 3 posts on my feed is an Ice Bucket Challenge. No matter what your feelings on the ethics behind the challenge (something we'll leave out of this blog post), we can all agree on its immense viral success. 

But why? Why are people so keen to get involved? Until recently, the ALS charity was fairly unknown in the UK and so it's unlikely that the multitude of people completing the challenge are doing so because of their strong support for the cause. The Ice Bucket challenge is a meme. It's fits the description - "A video...typically humorous...that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations". I believe there are three points that were crucial to the success of the Ice bucket Challenge...

1. It was created 'by the people for the people'

If the #IceBucketChallenge had been imagined up by the marketing team at the ALS Association we can guarantee it would have been a flop. Just look at rule 4 from above - memes shouldn't seem fake. There's nothing that internet users dislike more than forced marketing campaigns. (Remember McDonald's marketing-driven meme #shamrocking? That didn't turn out too well...

If you're interested in how the Ice Bucket Challenge began, TechCrunch have put together a potted history. That it originated organically gives people a sense of camaraderie; this isn't something forced upon them by an unknown suit and tie, it's for the good of the people!  

2. Look at me!

Social media wouldn't exist if we didn't like talking about ourselves. Without sounding cynical, the Ice Bucket Challenge can be just another way to portray ourselves in a positive light. The assumption about people in the videos is that they are giving to charity (a noble trait) and that they're willing to get their hands dirty for charity (again, very noble). The benefits of taking part in the challenge is that people will see you giving to charity, you get a lot of attention from your friends, people congratulate you, it creates a story to talk about. Not to mention that it gives some people the opportunity to accidentally show off their bikini bodies...

This isn't to say that the above is negative - the challenge has raised huge amounts for charity and greatly increased awareness of a serious disease. This is an important point for people hoping to create a craze, remember that people like to show off. However, regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge, we'd just encourage people to think about their true motives (and maybe keep a t-shirt on).

3. I nominate...

Possible the key to the Ice Bucket Challenge's success is the nomination. Tagging friends. Once you've been nominated, it's out there. Everyone can see you've been nominated and they are waiting for your acknowledgement of the challenge. 

It's very hard to ignore this sort of online peer pressure, and it's very likely to have persuaded people to take part who were otherwise not too keen. Marketers can make use of this tactic in their online strategies - how about tagging someone to do a dare involving your product? There are a number of opportunities to take hold of here, and we're happy to talk our clients through some ideas for their own brand.

Is it just the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Notice that none of our three points for success relate to the fact that it's for charity. Just look back at the No Makeup Selfie and Necknominate trends to see that almost anything can go viral given the right environment. One thing we've learnt above everything is that, when it comes to memes, all bets are off.