The Ice Bucket Challenge took the world by storm this summer, and as the latest charitable effort to become a social media phenomenon, it has caught the attention of the business world. Although brands won’t be able to replicate these charitable campaigns exactly, the success of philanthropic ventures can be a great source of social media inspiration.

Though we’ve seen brands doing great things with viral video and weird content, in many ways charities seem to have the advantage in viral-friendly content campaigns. In part, it’s the nature of philanthropy that helps them create viral hits: it feels good to help others, and sharing charity messages can make the audience feel like they’re helping a good cause. Because of their followers’ desire to help, charities can also sometimes get away with messaging that might not work for a conventional brand.

But the sort of viral content that becomes an Internet-sharing phenomenon can be hard to manufacture on demand. What audiences found novel last week might flop today, so you can’t necessarily rely on what’s worked before to work again. How can brands make it work? Today we’re going to dig into just what made the Ice Bucket Challenge so successful and take a look at another charity-driven social phenomenon, the summer scavenger hunt GISHWHES.

How Successful Are Charity Social Campaigns?

If you’ve been on the Internet at all this summer, you’ve probably seen the Ice Bucket Challenge and GISHWHES in your social feeds. The Ice Bucket Challenge reached a social saturation point which caused some to question just how useful such charity events were — was this the digital equivalent of armchair activism rather than actually helping a cause?

There’s no doubt that more people are talking about these events than are donating, but we have the statistics to prove that the Ice Bucket Challenge was an unqualified success for the ALS Association. Last summer’s fundraising between July 29 and Aug. 29 earned the organization $2.8 million. In the same period this year, it received more than $100 million in donations from more than 3 million donors. As of Sept. 10, the sweeping success of the Ice Bucket Challenge had generated donations totaling $111.6 million.

On Facebook, more than 2.4 million Ice Bucket Challenges have been shared and more than 28 million people are talking about them (between June 1 and Aug. 17), while the topic received 2.2 million mentions on Twitter (between July 1 and August 13).

Even if you’re tired of seeing Ice Bucket Challenge videos on your Facebook feed, it’s impossible to argue with those results: the campaign spread awareness of the organization and the disease, which led to a significant uptick in donations.

How the Ice Bucket Challenge Drove Shares

The Ice Bucket Challenge had the perfect blend of features to drive social sharing:

  • Even though it was advertised as a challenge, it was something nearly anyone could do. The low barrier to entry meant more participation.
  • It encouraged people to take video of themselves doing the challenge. Each video was a chance for the participant to show off their creativity, and as individuals competed to make their own challenge videos more interesting, the videos — and the campaign — got shared.
  • It supported charity, which gave people a reason to do something a bit foolish that they otherwise might not do.
  • When an individual took the challenge, they could challenge others to take it too. This helped the campaign spread similarly to a chain letter, reaching more people as the summer progressed.
  • It had celebrity power. When celebrities got in on the action, videos were being shared to a huge number of social followers who in turn shared them with their followers — not to mention the fact that celebrities issuing challenges to other celebrities pushed the phenomenon to grow even further.

If the campaign had a flaw, it’s that it continued until the Internet was sick of it, which makes it less likely that there will be a repeat performance of the success next year.

Taking the Scavenger Hunt Online With GISHWHES

GISHWHES is an acronym that stands for Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen, and it tries to live up to its name. An online event, GISHWHES encourages teams from around the world to spend a week every summer collecting photos or videos of scavenger hunt items, which can range from silly (like a photo of Star Wars Stormtrooper cleaning a pool) to charitable acts (like putting on a puppet show at a children’s hospital). Though it doesn’t directly drive individuals to philanthropic giving, it encourages charitable acts in some of its hunt items and the event donates its proceeds — there’s a fee to enter — to the nonprofit Random Acts.

GISHWHES works as a viral phenomenon for many of the same reasons the Ice Bucket Challenge does:

  • Even with the entry fee, there’s a relatively low barrier to entry. No special skills are required, and anyone, anywhere in the world, can participate.
  • There are prizes for the winning team, which further encourages participation. And even for teams that don’t win the prize, there’s a big fun factor just to participating, which the event advertises.
  • The nature of the competition encourages social chatter as participants reach out to others for help securing hunt items. This social buzz builds awareness of the event.
  • The fact that each hunt item must be captured on photo or video creates a great deal of content every year which can be shared to build yet more awareness.
  • Because GISHWHES only lasts a week, it’s usually over before it causes social media burnout.

Since the event has both an entry fee and a specific period when individuals can participate, it’s unlikely GISHWHES will overtake the Ice Bucket Challenge for top social charity phenomenon any time soon. However, the event adds more participants — and expands its impact, both social and otherwise — every year.

How Can Brands Get Involved?

Though it can be difficult to replicate this kind of viral charity success for brands, there’s no reasons brands can’t get involved. Your social team should treat charity events like any other social trend: you can add it to your dialogue, participate in it, support it, or donate to it.

If it’s a charity that matches your brand’s image, getting involved in their causes can be a good move. Not only does it mean your brand is doing some good, but you’re associating your brand with a worthy cause, and one people are talking about. Like any other online phenomenon, quick action means you can capitalize on the existing excitement.

If you hop on the bandwagon, though, be sure to keep the focus on the cause in question. Trying to make a popular philanthropic trend all about you and your business is sure to backfire. Don’t look at charity sensations only for their marketing potential. Keep it genuine and generous.

Also, while you my not be able to directly copy the success of these charities into a more commercial campaign, there are certainly lessons you can learn from them — just remember that a brand campaign can’t necessarily ask as much of its participants as a charity campaign. With the right expectations, these principles can guide your project to success.