A Marketer’s Defense of the Ice Bucket Challenge

“When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” — Alfred Harmsworth,

The  Ice Bucket Backlash is now underway.

After several weeks of viral videos and millions of dollars raised, my Facebook  news feed (and likely, yours too) is now filled with people questioning the wisdom and appropriateness of the campaign.

The hip-hop group De La Soul posted a photo on their Facebook page  asking a simple question:

De La Soul


Recently Will Oremus of the Chicago Tribune, under the headline “Say ‘No!’ to the Ice Bucket Challenge (registration required to read the full article) noted that the original Ice Bucket Challenge had nothing to do with the ALS Association, and had this to say:

…I’m proposing what is sure to be an unpopular alternative to the #IceBucketChallenge. It’s called the no ice bucket challenge, and it works like this:

1. Do not fetch a bucket, fill it with ice or dump it on your head.

2. Do not film yourself or post anything on social media.

3. Just donate the damn money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice.

My take? I’m willing to concede, without doing any research, every fact he cites in his column.

The possibility exists the origin story put forth by the ALS Association is at least somewhat fictional, and that the Ice Bucket Challenge does not “belong” to the ALS Association or anyone else, for that matter.

We are all capable of making a donation to ALS or any other charity without using ice water, a video camera, or anyone else.

Having conceded all that, I believe that Oremus’ conclusion is wrong. As a marketing program, the ALS version of the Ice Bucket Challenge is superb.

  • It is distinctive – different from any other charity fundraising campaign out there.
  • It is a great example of Cialdini’s example of “social proof” as a persuasion technique – all of our friends are doing it and posting video on Facebook. We’d better do it too if we want to be accepted by the group.
  • It gives people distinctive instructions: dump a bucket of ice water on your head, or donate $100 to ALS. Not everybody fully understands the instructions — I’m sure there are lots of people dumping ice water on their heads without making donations. That’s okay. Most people get it.
  • It has raised public awareness about the effects of a horrible disease. Not everybody who posted a challenge video talked about this, but the donors to ALS are going to get plenty of mail from the Association, and that will educate at least some of them.
  • And finally, it’s worked. A of August 27, it has raised more than $88 million for the ALS Association — much, much more than the Association is used to receiving from the regular donors.

Yes, it’s possible to donate to the charity of your choice, and ask anybody else to donate, without using an ice bucket. That’s “Dog Bites Man”. by incorporating a simple bucket of ice water, the ALS Association has gotten the man to bite the dog, to the tune of $88 million. Bravo.

A Nigerian Prince Shows You How to Target Prime Prospects

If you have an email address, you have undoubtedly received several variations of the “Nigerian scam” over the years. This is a message purporting to be from someone representing a high official in that African nation. There is a big pot of money hidden somewhere, and they need your help in getting it out of the country. They also need your Social Security and bank account numbers.

Since you read America’s Finest Advertising, Marketing and Sales Blog, you are certainly too smart to respond to something like that. I know that, and you know that.


guy reading email marketing

Photo by Sara Cimino

But here’s something that may surprise you: according to Roger Dooley at the Neuromarketing Blog, the scammers don’t want you to respond. In fact, they deliberately make the message so ridiculous that you will make fun of it and then delete it.

The reason? Smart people are a waste of their time. Citing a a study by Microsoft Cybercrime Researcher Cormac Herley, Dooley puts it this way:

For the scammers to make money, they will ultimately have to convince their targets to wire them money and perhaps even travel to Africa. Needless to say, these are steps that few prospects will find appealing. Even gullible targets will get suspicious as the demands increase, and most will drop out of the process. And each prospect requires individual attention in the form of emails, replies, phone calls, etc…

This labor-intensive process means that if more potential skeptics are knocked out of the conversion funnel at the outset, the density of potential victims goes up in the smaller pool of prospects. The scammer wastes less time and can convert more victims to maximize profit. Even if a few good prospects are lost by by using a less plausible pitch, the higher density of victims in the final pool makes the entire process more profitable. As Herley notes,

“By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.”

 The lesson for you as a (presumably) honest businessperson is this: it might make sense for you to attract fewer prospects rather than more prospects. Here’s why:

Every customer interaction has at least some marginal cost. There is the time that your staff spends talking to each customer on the phone or in person – time they could be spending on something else. There’s the cost of brochures, postage, gasoline, paper… the list goes on.

Any of this time or material spent on a customer who doesn’t buy is wasted.

Rather than trying to attract the widest possible audience, Dooley recommends that you consider shrinking your sales funnel and focusing your resources on the people most likely to buy from you.

Jim Doyle, owner of the marketing consulting firm Jim Doyle and Associates (and my boss) puts it this way: “The scarcer your resources, the more narrow should be your focus.”

For best results, take a lesson from “Chief Oyinbolowo Eko” and “Barrister Mike Okoye, lawyer to Mrs. Mariam Abacha”: ignore the people who are not predisposed to buy, and focus your scarce resources on people who look like, act like, and think like the people who do business with you now.

How Long Will It Take For The Advertising To Work?

Whenever we present an advertising plan to a new client, one of the first questions we hear (right after “How much will it cost”?) is “How long will it take to work?”

It’s a difficult question to answer — some products are impulse buys while others require painstaking research… some people need it now while others won’t buy until they’re ready. Roy Williams, The Wizard of Ads, recently tackled an underrated variable: the quality of the marketing message.

In a recent Monday Morning Memo, Roy had this to say:

Advertisers often ask, “How many times does the average person have to see or hear my message before it will be transferred into the automatic recall part of the mind?” Although this seems like a reasonable question, it’s a little bit like asking, “How many ounces of alcoholic beverage does it take for the average person to get drunk?” We can’t really answer that question until we know whether the “ounces of alcoholic beverage” are beer with 5% alcohol, wine with 14% alcohol, or Scotch with 45% alcohol.
How strong are your ads? The stronger your ads, the fewer times they have to be heard.
Alcohol and marketing

Photo by Didriks

Even then, as Williams points out later in the article, mindshare once attained must be maintained. Williams cites Bob Hoffman’s discussion of Pepsi, who cancelled their TV advertising and replaced it with a social media strategy in 2010. According to Hoffman, the strategy got them millions of Facebook likes… and a 5% loss of market share.

The example I often use is McDonald’s. Wherever I am in the country, I can walk down to my hotel lobby and ask the front desk clerk where McDonald’s is. She won’t ask me who McDonald’s is — she knows what it is, where it is, and what I’ll find when I get there. So does everyone else in town.

And yet, if I return to my hotel room and turn on the TV, I’ll soon see a McDonald’s commercial.

Because Mickey D’s doesn’t want anyone to forget.