The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – Viral Buzz & Contagious

For the past four weeks, I’ve watched social media videos on Facebook and Instagram that relate to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The first videos that I saw were from college athletes.  Then, one of my daughters challenged me (who can say no to their daughter?), and, in turn, I challenged two colleagues at the American Public University System.

I believe that around the time I posted my video and contributed to ALS, contributions from the challenge totaled approximately $2 million, an amount that was substantially more than same period the year before.  Today, Time Magazine reports that $53 million has been contributed to ALS since July 2014.  In all of 2013, $19 million was donated to the ALS Association. ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is an incurable motor neuron disease that causes nerve cells to progressively fail and die. It affect’s one’s ability to control the muscles needed to move, speak, swallow, and breathe.

The person credited with starting the Ice Bucket Challenge on July 31 has been former Boston College baseball player, Pete Frates. When researching to confirm the challenge’s ground zero person (the person who started the challenge), Slate Magazine reports that the likely person is not Pete Frates, but instead is minor league golfer, Chris Kennedy, who started the ALS Challenge on July 14. Regardless of who started the challenge, the rapid spread from pro athletes to college athletes to celebrities, politicians, and to the million people who have donated to ALS in the past month is impressive.

As I watched the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos spread from athletes to friends, relatives, and colleagues, I thought about a book that I had read more than a year ago, Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. Dr. Berger, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, disputes the thinking that online content is more likely to go viral than word of mouth. Berger’s point is that there’s so much content online, people are inundated and choose to ignore most of it.

Certain stories are contagious, according to Dr. Berger, and he proposes a six-step methodology for companies and individuals to design products, ideas, and behaviors for people to talk about them. Berger’s methodology is called STEPPS, an acronym representing six different behaviors important for an idea to go viral.

The six principles or behaviors identified by Dr. Berger are: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.  Berger says that not all six of the principles are required for an idea to go viral, but when I review the many videos, all of the six principles except for practical value appear to be present in the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Dr. Berger doesn’t claim that it’s easy to turn an idea or product into a viral campaign, but his analysis appears to be spot on.

Obviously, the ALS Association is going to have to work hard over the next year to recreate successful campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge. I would suggest that they read Contagious: Why Things Catch On as part of their planning.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence