How did the ALS campaign go Viral?

8 min read

A Bucket of Ice Sets the Internet on Fire – how did the ALS campaign go viral? 

The Ice Bucket Challenge is brilliant, even if it was accidentally so.

It’s got all the elements right as a viral design; it’s so good it is worth studying.

First – a formal definition of virality:

Virality     →    

Virality Formula
Virality Formula

Here’s some of the factors that was brilliant about the challenge –

1) It is inherently viral

This is true built-in virality: 1 person challenges 3. It’s very different from a popular video that has “gone viral”, which may have spread very quickly, but is not inherently designed to be viral.

2) It’s for a good cause + it’s FREE and DO-ABLE for everyone

Somewhere between guilt-trip and narcism = High conversion rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a k of 50%+.

3) The viral loop is fast (24 hours)

In the study of virality, the viral cycle time is an important factor to consider,

4) It’s designed to hit the connectors on the social graph

If you pick 3 people to challenge, chances are you will choose a connector to maximise impact

5) It’s designed to naturally bubble up to the top influencers

It’s natural to challenge someone else influential and the person challenged is being put on the spot to accept it, or at least respond.

6) Once it hits the A-listers, it creates a secondary media/word-of-mouth effect

More importantly it lends legitimacy and glamour, causing the average conversion rate to go up. (If Bill Gates and Loki are doing it, it must be cool.)

Bonus: it has potential of going wrong – Reddit & 9Gag love it
(sadly sometimes tragically, horribly wrong…)

The resulting virality you end up getting is pretty interesting:

If we start off with just 1 person, and every person challenges another 3, assuming 50% of challenges are accepted, each acceptance takes an average of 2 days..  The Ice Bucket challenge would theoretically reach 1.9 billion people in 100 days.

Reaching 2B people in 100 days
Reaching 2B people in 100 days

Here’s the template for calculating virality.

(You can play with the 2nd sheet to see the effects of different conversion rate, cycle time, etc. Credits: Great original article by David Skok)



My friend Eric Nakagawa (creator of lolcats, so he knows a thing or two about virality) also points out 2 interesting things –

1) Those infected tend to defend the virus, reinforcing the behaviour

If you did the ice bucket challenge – you will tend to defend its virtues regardless of how much/little you believe in it)

2) The design of the virus tends to climb upwards in the influence ladder

Influential people tend to gets challenged multiple times and others not so much – this is a flaw in the virus design that could be improved to enhance virality. (such as by creating a legit path for self-challenge, currently it is awkward to do the ice bucket without being challenged – but a path could be created and legitimise for this purpose, enabling more spontaneous spawning of new nodes potentially hitting parts of the graph that the natural virus progression does not hit)


Mutations towards Patient Zero – Pete Frates

As with viruses in nature, you can always trace it back to patient zero, where a particular form of mutation creates a strain of virus that spreads faster than ever before.

Slate tries to trace back to the origins of the Ice Bucket Challenge and found that the idea may have begin as early as in 1904 – however, that is not quite as meaningful as figuring out what were the mutations that lead to this particular version of the challenge that took the world like wildfire.

Here are a few mutations I suspect contributed to its virality:

[Mutation 1] Someone somewhere in 2013 re-ignited the Polar Bear Plunge, probably in a cold country, more as a fun dare than anything that is also for a good cause

[Mutation 2] Sometime in early 2014 the ice challenge became the 24-hour Challenge, this changed the Cycle-Time (ct) and laid the ground work for rapid spreading. You can see that some FaceBook groups, such as this one in Canada (likely one of the paths of origins of the Ice Bucket challenge) have close resemblance of this particular strain of the challenge. But as late as 14 April 2014, the challenge was still called 24-hour challenge, and was not specific to ALS.

[Mutation 3 – Patient zero] 31st July 2014, Pete Frates, a star athlete and an ALS patient, gave the Ice Bucket Challenge the final mutation, in a funny yet heart-wrenching facebook post – and it became the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. At this point, perhaps most people did not particularly cared about ALS, but introducing a specific purpose to the challenge had an important effect – it took away the need make a decision to pick a cause. It became much much simpler to just do the challenge and adopt the given charitable cause – ALS. I suspect this was the final mutation that took the conversion rate up significantly and gave its current virality factor.

Peter Frates ignited the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
Peter Frates ignited the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

[Mutation 4 – optimization] Somewhere down the line, the challenge mutated further and stabilised on the particular form of nominating 3 people for the challenge (instead of any number) – probably because 3 was the magical optimized number of people which is significant enough to challenge, but not too many to cause decision paralysis.


ALS: Beyond Ice and Fire

While the brilliance of the Ice Bucket challenge is to be applauded, something about it does bother me, as I suspect it bothers many people.

Most people had no idea what ALS is about. When I first saw Bill Gates do the challenge some weeks back, I had no idea it was for ALS, nor what ALS is.

I found out a week later, that ALS is essentially the same as Motor Neuron Disease (MND) – the thing my dad had died from 10 years ago.

And in a rush of memories came back to haunt me, reminding me that for about 5 years before he passed, he had suffered from a slow and agonising deterioration of his physical form.

While he was never diagnosed with ALS specifically, but it was certain that it was some variant of MND. (It runs in the family)

Normally a cheerful, resilient and curious man, it was particularly helpless to watch him slowly lose his ability to walk, and then move his arms, and then slowly deteriorated to be completely bed-bound, and finally losing his ability to even speak or eat.

Some days were better – he could still retain a cheerful spirit, be curious about the world, watch a little TV. Other days were worse – he was simply depressed and didn’t want to do anything at all.

The most terrifying part is probably that you could see from his eyes, that he still had his brilliant wits about him – just trapped in a body that could not express even a whiff of it.

Very little is known about MND – we don’t know how to diagnose it definitively, we don’t know what causes it, and we certainly don’t know how to cure it. It doesn’t affect a lot of people, but it is awful nonetheless.

According to the MIT Technology Review, ALS Association raised $2.2M in donations by 29 July last year. This year with Ice Bucket, it has raised $53.3M, while the National Institute of Health budget for MND research is only $40M. (Update: ALSA has now raised $94M)

This is tremendous opportunity for ALSA, who usually spends 27% on Research (not a whole lot), to be able to make a real difference here – potentially tripling the research budget in the US.

So my personal hope is that no matter how annoying you find the challenge, or whether those who took it on understand ALS or not – it is a good thing that is being passed on and is making real impact for those affected by it.

Indeed we should spread the love around as well and there are many other issues that deserve a lot more attention and funding – but we don’t have to diminish one thing to gain progress for another. If we were all a little less skeptical, a little less cynical – perhaps everything would get a little better all at the same time.

And so finally – a call out to ALSA – great job, this is a feat to have achieved in raising funds and awareness. Please now, invest wisely, focus on funding research, and do the right thing and create an ALS-free world once and for all.

This one is for you, Dad.

The Carousell team has mercilessly generously hit us with the Ice Bucket challenge (plus MoneySmart‘s Vinod, Roger and my sister).

We do consider it a privilege to be challenged, so here goes –

We accepted the challenge and we challenge our friends and advisors – Team Golden Gate Ventures, 500 Startup and Eduardo Saverin to take on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.



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