Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge, Charities and Social Media

The Ice Bucket Challenge has become a Web-wide phenomenon, propelled by social media and the viral nature of the challenge. The challenge itself is simple – if you are nominated, you have 24 hours to make a film of yourself having a bucketful of icy water poured over your head. While on camera, you state which charity you are supporting, and nominate three other people to do the same. Participants then donate to their chosen charity. In some variations you are ‘expected’ to do the challenge if you don’t want to donate, and, alternatively some people choose just to donate rather than going through the cold, wet experience of being doused in icy water. The exact origins are unclear, but it is thought that the first incident of this craze occurred in July 2014 when a golfer in the USA undertook the challenge and supported the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association. Since then, the ALS has raised around $100m in donations, while the British equivalent (Motor Neurone Disease Association) has received £4.5m. These are staggering numbers that go a long way to showing whether or not social media has some value for charitable organisations.

For the past 3 years, I’ve been studying the engagement with social media campaigns run by charities, and trying to assess the value of these services to such organisations. It is a complex matter, with a lot of confusion and little real understanding. Many services offer to ‘analyse’ your social media account to tell you how ‘well’ you are performing, but pay little – if any – attention to the context of your organisation. The goals of charities on social media are varied, and ‘success’ in each of these will produce different outcomes compared to any other. But in the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, clearly this campaign has succeeded in raising awareness and money for the charity?

Well, simply put, yes. Undeniably this is a huge amount of money that has been raised, and the awareness gained – 28 million people on Facebook have either uploaded a related video, commented on one, or ‘liked’ a related post  - is hugely important for a charity. But how do you determine ‘success’ for something that the charity didn’t plan or start at all? Similar questions arose around the #nomakeupselfie trend earlier in the year that raised over £8m for Cancer Research UK within 6 days, which again was not started by the charity itself. For the Ice Bucket Challenge, Motor Neurone Disease charities became associated with the phenomenon because of the early occurrence of it from the US-based golfer's video. It grew incredibly quickly, but once other charities became aware of it, a tussle for attention began. Indeed searching on Google for ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’, I see MacMillan Cancer Support as the third result, showing how they’ve integrated it into their own ‘ways to support’ communications - they have raised £3m from the challenge - they have also pointed out via their Twitter account that people have been doing the campaign to raise money for them since before the ALS movement started, but it definitely didn't have this level of attention. It appears that campaigns such as these are incredibly tricky to actually plan and design, they come about through the networks of people on the Web uniting around an idea. At this point, the charity has the chance – because of the public and viral nature of the social media to leap on to campaign and promote their cause. Cancer Research UK managed this exceptionally well with #nomakeupselfie, and now other charities are doing so with the Ice Bucket Challenge. Whether this is ‘right’ to take potential donations away from MND charities during a campaign that has sprung up around them is debatable. But the value appears to be opportunistic, requiring the charity to be tuned into the Web and social media, aware of what takes off, and then savvy enough to create further buzz around it. This may cause things to swing in favour of the larger charities who can take the time to constantly monitor these things, and could potentially make it difficult for smaller charities to capture attention. 

Of course both of these examples rely massively on the participants involved. It wouldn’t be possible to write this post without mentioning – however cynically – that there may be an element of narcissism occurring here. These campaigns both involve putting rich media content of oneself (a picture for nomakeupselfie, a video for ice bucket) online with the premise of having ‘done something good’.  Several journalists and commentators have now attributed the success of these campaigns to such behaviour. There is also an element of ‘slacktivism’ whereby people carry out a simple, easy action in order to obtain the good feeling that they would get from helping or donating money without actually doing so. It won’t be known how many ice bucket challenges were done and out of these how many people actually donated. Some versions of it even used the challenge itself as a way out of donating – if you didn't want to donate, you had to be soaked instead. Perhaps it doesn't matter as all the time it is reaching more people who will potentially donate, and then reach even more people. But does this 'slacktivism' really help? And will the short-term awareness that this campaign has generated really last in the long run?

I’m not for one moment doubting that the Ice Bucket Challenge hasn’t been an incredible exhibition of people’s willingness to go out of their way for charity - I am staggered by the amount it has gone on to raise and it has hopefully gone a long way to providing help which is only a good thing. But this campaign is not a demonstration of a success by any one charities’ marketing team, and therefore it is difficult to determine its true value. It is instead a display of the spirit of the community, the affordances of a networked society and social technologies, and the visibility of the two through social media. The value lies somewhere in this intersection, and hopefully my thesis (coming later this year!) shall provide some further insights!

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