Arment Dietrich

What’s Wrong With the Viral Fad?

By: Arment Dietrich | September 18, 2014 | 

What's Wrong With the Viral FadBy Clay Morgan

You can’t log into Facebook without seeing it.

People talking about ALS and then dumping a bucket of ice cold water on their head.

Unless you are Patrick Stewart, who had, by far, the classiest ice bucket challenge video, it feels like a gimmick…and I’m not a big fan of gimmicks.

I didn’t like the ice bucket challenge and still don’t.

I have to admit, though, it is working.

As of this writing, more than 2.4 million ice bucket videos have been uploaded to Facebook, and the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association has surpassed $100 million in donations.

Given their previous budgets, I’d say it is a pretty successful campaign.

What’s Wrong with Memes?

Most of my Pinterest time is usually looking up memes.

I think this annoys my wife as it usually happens when she’s watching something on TV and I’m sitting next to her. And I take sharing quite literally.

I admit I have a hard time seeing the value of a meme, even after Thomas Ford’s compelling argument on Spin Sucks at the end of 2012.

That said, we can’t deny the appeal of a meme.

We see them all the time and we laugh, or we nod our head in agreement that yes, indeed, Kony (His first name is Joseph, by the way. Memes never mention that.) should be brought to justice.

But still, when was the last time you were motivated by a meme?

Big Differences in the Common Ground

Memes and viral videos such as the ice bucket challenge have a few things in common.

First, they are very visual. Memes use iconic images or pop culture images like Walking Dead or Game of Thrones to help make a point.


Similarly, the ice bucket challenge works because we see our friends and family, as well as celebrities, jump in there and make funny faces or develop creative ways to take the challenge.

Even when another point is to be made, it works.

This is akin to Matt Damon’s ice bucket challenge, in which he poured toilet water on his head to make a point about the lack of drinking water.

Though don’t we all think at least of little of Damon’s approach was flagellation in repentance for making We Bought a Zoo?

The big difference is relational.

We relate to the ice bucket challenge. We see our friends doing it and hopefully somewhere in there we learn a little more than we knew about ALS. That leads to a donation, or better yet, an ongoing donation.

A Call-to-Action is Necessary

Also, the ice bucket challenge has a clear call-to-action. When challenged, you are told to dump cold water on your head, make your donation, and challenge three of your friends.

The Kony memes do not have a call to action and they do not tell you to grab your Rambo outfit and hop a plane to Kampala.

Heck, they don’t even tell you to write your Congressman or Congresswoman and ask them to make this horrific situation a foreign policy priority.

And this is the problem with most memes—they lack a real call-to-action.

But there is still a problem with the ice bucket challenge.

One hundred million dollars is a lot of money. The viral videos have created a lot of awareness, and these can be used to fight the dreadful disease that is ALS.

However, it should be more. There don’t seem to be any hard and fast numbers on unpaid commitments, but one estimate placed potential earnings at 40 percent higher than actual earnings had everyone who has taken the challenge donated $100.

This 40 percent number seems to coincide with other organizations and commitments made to them.

Also, the organization itself, under scrutiny, has admitted that historically only 27 percent of its donations goes to fund research and cures.

Then there’s this question: What happens next year?

How does ALS sustain $100 million-plus giving?

How Can You Handle Going Viral?

Let’s say you are planning a campaign, a contest, or an effort. It includes video, memes, infographics, or some other visual approach.

First, when creating a visual message, it is important to connect the dots.

How is this video related to fighting a disease, selling a book, or deposing a Ugandan warlord?

Make it clear.

Second, what is the action you want me to take? Have a call-to-action and, like connecting the dots, make it clear.

Finally, if your video or meme do go viral, be prepared.

Do you have the infrastructure to handle a surge of donations, orders, or investments?

Criticism and scrutiny will come. How will you deal with the “I don’t like that” critics?

If a skeleton is discovered, do you have a plan for dealing with the criticism?

What about next year? You may strike viral gold twice, but it isn’t likely.

Have you developed an integrated marketing plan to turn those one-time customers into repeat customers (or donors)?

It is visual content that goes viral. When it happens it can be very exciting for you and your client, but it presents unique challenges.

Your planning and your reaction will dictate the level of excitement—or pain—you or your client feel with the virus hits.

  • Oh dear, they turned HIM loose with a keyboard.

  • What I found most fascinating about the ALS ice bucket challenge is its origin story. It wasn’t a campaign planned by the organization. Rather, it was a personal challenge issued by Pete Frates, though even that story may be apocryphal.

  • Jason, you are correct. ALS did not create this challenge. Though, it’s history is convoluted, at best. Here’s an interesting investigation from Slate, re: the origins of the ‘ice bucket challenge’ – some go back as far as early 2013.
    As for where the money goes, Clay, I think it’s safe to say that most if not all charitable orgs use donations to fund their charitable side. BUT, if we’re talking about elevating recognition of a relatively obscure illness (I mean, come on – how many tweens and teens had heard of ALS prior to this summer…?), than the IBC campaign sure as heck did that. And that’s a very, very good thing.

  • Wow, I didn´t know they raised $100 million. That´s great.

    “How Can You Handle Going Viral?” Great question, which I am sure not many organizations take into consideration.

  • jasonkonopinski I don’t see the story as apocryphal as I watched this campaign grow from infancy in my location (Boston) with Mr. Frates. I think it snowballed as a result of the impetus of Boston College fans and local media. From there the ALS organization saw potential and grabbed onto the sensation for the national campaign. Originally ‘this’ Ice Bucket Challenge was for a specific fund set up for Mr. Frates, the ALS organization hijacked (IMHO) the initial momentum to capture a larger fund base (not that I can blame them). The virality had its consequences and double edged sword between raising such an enormous amount of money with the celebrity social media involvement versus original purpose of the challenge (for whom and for what) and the involvement of a large organization with all the scrutiny and baggage they carry with distribution of dollars–the short lived seeking of a trademark patent also didn’t help. 

    As far as ALS sustaining the funding next year, I doubt it. It was a major financial as well as brand/disease windfall that I am thankful for (I had a brother succumb to ALS) and feel that most people contribute annually to these types of organizations based on personal connection.

  • belllindsay I’m not denying it is a good thing, but it is a safe bet they weren’t prepared for this kind of money – or scrutiny – rolling in.

  • jasonkonopinski They key is they managed to turn it into something good. 

    Or did they? Can you “make” something go viral?

  • corinamanea We see it in all walks of life. The “immediate success” and the challenges people have with dealing with it, whether it is a viral video, an overnight musical success, or a person winning the lottery. Good things happening can have their own challenges.

  • This question in particular jumps out at me: “Have you developed an to turn those one-time customers into repeat customers (or donors)?” Because even if the ALS foundation didn’t launch this campaign and really couldn’t see the donations boom coming, any nonprofit worth its salt should have a plan in place to turn one-time donors into regular supporters.

  • Eleanor Pierce You say that, but can it scale to what the ALS is experiencing?

  • annelizhannan jasonkonopinski I too am thankful for the windfall, but am concerned about “the future.”  Their funding will certainly be higher than previous levels, but I just wonder how they are going to keep this momentum going – if they can.

  • ClayMorgan Eleanor Pierce Well, if we’re playing the questions game … Do you think they could have seen it coming? Especially considering that they didn’t start the challenge? Should all organizations have a plan that’s scalable to a massive viral explosion, even if they’re not necessarily doing any campaigns that might make that happen?

  • I love this ClayMorgan . The biggest problem I have with Memes and Viral efforts is 99.999999% of them fail but people still view this as a strategy. They are all one offs. If tomorrow Susan B Komen tried a similar challenge no one would do it.
    Your points are really valid with the call to actions. I view Social Media not as a driver but as the 10% froth. Meaning in a properly planned campaign if you include social in addition to traditional media and you put effort into social it should add 10% to your reach and hopefully conversions. It is a spoke not the rim or the wheel. 

    But anyone who is 100% all in on social media as their business will never admit that.

  • Eleanor Pierce ClayMorgan I don’t know how accurately they could have predicted it, but at some point they saw something unique was happening. I hope for sustainability, they acted then in developing a scalable strategy.

    What I find curious is when something good like this happens, there are a lot of cries that “they couldn’t have expected that,” but when it is “bad viral,” such as a hashtag hijacking, everyone says they should’ve seen it coming.

  • Howie Goldfarb ClayMorgan You and I speak the same language.

  • ClayMorgan Eleanor Pierce Absolutely.

  • ClayMorgan corinamanea I really want to win the lottery.

  • Danny Brown Haha! Danny FTW!

  • ClayMorgan belllindsay Yeah, there were variations of a ‘cold water challenge’ kicking around for a while, but Frates’ interpretation actually aligned with the specific cause. The shock of having ice cold water dumped on you was meant to give people a glimpse of what ALS is like – frozen in your own body. 

    Will they be able to raise that kind of money next year? Not a chance. However, they did a huge influx of first-time donors which virtually every NPO from here to Timbuktu struggles in acquiring.

  • ClayMorgan Memes are ALL THE TALK here in Tallahassee right now. Not that our star player had “immediate success” but the combination of fame and being relied upon by a huge college football enterprise by/with a young man who isn’t necessarily of exceptional maturity is problematic (this is an understatement). Here’s one of the many links to how his reenactment of a current meme did absolutely no one any favors (and I just read (not sure how reliable) that he’s now decided/claimed that he has Tourette’s. I really think not ….

  • belllindsay ClayMorgan corinamanea me too!

  • ClayMorgan Eleanor Pierce Oh, also, have you read Dave Eggers’ The Circle?

  • Such a great post, asking critical questions about the “new” challenge of viral “stuff.” I agree it would be ideal if many of these non profits had an integrated marketing plan that includes “what if something goes viral?” (I recently read a blogger’s article about the craziness that ensued when her post went viral, including her provider saying she didn’t have enough bandwidth, causing her entire blog to crash). But seriously a lot of non profits struggle to even put a decent balance sheet together (this may be an exaggeration but …) and deal with frequent staff turnover and the pressure of solving whatever problem they are trying to solve; I imagine it is the rare org that takes the time/resources to do this (which I know is short sighted ….).

  • biggreenpen Thank you. 

    You are right. There are a lot of challenges that come with running things day to day, then throw success – either through something going viral or a fad or just good organic growth – and the challenges can multiply.

  • Eleanor Pierce ClayMorgan I have not. I assume it is recommended?

  • ClayMorgan Eleanor Pierce Well … it’s interesting. Not as well done as some of his other stuff, I think. But it does paint an interesting (if alarmist) picture of where we’re headed. There’s a big thing in the book about how we all think we’re actually dong something when we “like” a social movement. When really, we’re adding nothing of substance to the situation or the conversation.

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