What the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge revealed about peer pressure marketing

Digital Marketing By Josanne Griffin-Mason, 24th September 2014

Peer pressure can make a marketing campaign go viral.

Take the recent success of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge. The concept relied on friends (and in some cases, enemies) publicly calling each other out to participate. Every nomination was laden with social pressure.

For one, a commitment was made, albeit not by the nominated person themself. Morally, the nominee felt obligated to take part, epically as the challenge was about raising awareness and money for charity. Most people consider themselves to be kind and charitable, so to not accept the ALS Association’s challenge would be to personally and publicly challenge that component of one’s identity, potentially tarnishing the perception people hold of them.

The second key peer pressure technique worked by creating a divide between those who had been invited to take part in the Ice Bucket Challenge and those who hadn’t.

Renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow, cites the need to belong as a fundamental human motivator. In fact, being connected to others is as crucial as the fulfilment of one’s physiological needs, their safety, self-esteem and self-actualisation. In creating an exclusive campaign, the ALS Association marketers targeted that basic human desire and inspired people to take part through the (conscious and subconscious) gratification of being accepted into the group.

But what happens when peer pressure doesn’t work?

The ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge was not short of backlash.

People refused to take part based on ethical grounds concerning water wastage, the charity’s use of animal testing and the shaming records that surfaced on how the charity spend donations. The criticism aired in the public domain and loudly. Peer pressure had failed.

Peer pressure tactics are harder to get past those who naturally question the status quo, or whom psychologists deem to possess a rebel personality type. Rebels don’t do this just to be different; they fight the causes they believe in, articulate their reasons well and are capable of convincing others to join them.

That’s why few nominees declined the challenge based on getting cold or wet but plenty donated to alternative charities instead. Water Aid, for example, were receiving as much as £47,0001 per day during the height of the campaign, which is 50% more than the charity has ever received in a single day previously.

Perhaps the exclusiveness of the Ice Bucket Challenge presents another reason for many choosing to reject it. Bullying behaviour is fiercely contested in today’s society and social media is under particular scrutiny as newspapers report on cyber bullies driving their victims to self-harm or death.

Some people may have purposely decided not to conform to group mentality on this principal, whilst others used the inclusive method of nominating all of their social media followers to join in. Of course, a verbal nomination for ‘all’ doesn’t possess the marketing gravitas of being directly tagged in a post.

How to use social weight effectively

From the 29th of July to the 28th of August 2014, the ALS Association received $98.2 million in donations – they received just $2.7 million during the same period the previous year.

The Motor Neurone Disease Association (the British equivalent) usually receives donations amounting to an average of £200,000 per week. Amidst the Ice Bucket Challenge they were pulling in £2.7 million per week.

There’s no doubt that social pressure works, particularly if it’s justified by a charitable cause, but how can other businesses use it effectively without alienating people?

Let’s assume you’re about to launch a food festival:

  1. Ask people to make a public commitment. Encourage attendees to share the event you have organised on their social media page in the run up to the occasion and they will feel a heightened sense of duty to be there.
  2. Really break down the defining characteristics of your audience and call them out. Is this event especially for those who think of themselves as experimentalists? Tell them that this will be the ultimate test of their taste buds.
  3. Exclusivity can trigger people to act quickly. If your venue has an 800 person capacity then stress that visitors will need to book their place early.
  4. Without charity as the incentive, marketers need to find an alternative that is valuable to their audience. Can you offer a group discount to those who convince two friends to join them at the food festival? Then do it!

Who will be next?

The ALS Wikipedia page had 2,717,754 views between the 1st and the 27th of August this year. Just 1,662,842 people visited the page during the whole of the preceding twelve months.

Working on the same principles as the ‘no make-up selfie’ earlier in the year, which raised millions for breast cancer, the Ice Bucket Challenge proved once again that a charity could dominate social media, raise awareness for its cause and go viral with a campaign that entirely relied on audience participation.

Will another charity go viral before the year is out? Are any other industries up for the challenge? We can’t wait to find out!

1 BBC News Magazine, 2014. How much has the ice bucket challenge achieved?. [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29013707. [Accessed on the 24th September 2014].