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What the Ice Bucket Challenge Teaches Us About Marketing

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“Does dumping ice water over your head really do anything for ALS – or is it just narcissistic?”

This critique of the Ice Bucket Challenge has been bouncing around in my mini-feed.  Probably yours, too.

As far as I can see, this is actually two critiques rolled into one –

1) does taking the challenge actually do anything, and
2) does it just show that we’re actually all self-centered Gilderoy Lockharts at heart who prefer awards over action?

So, does it do anything? 

Facebook has long gotten a bad rap for enabling access to “slacktivism,” or people wanting to appear like they’re doing some good (e.g. by liking or sharing something) instead of getting truly involved.

But not so fast:  A recent study from Georgetown suggests that so-called “slactivists” are actually far more likely to also participate in other forms of activism.  Indicating that slactivism doesn’t necessarily tend to replace actual involvement.  By and large, it appears to be just another channel for the already-interested.

Even that aside:  For Ice Bucket-ing, specifically, the ALS Association reports receiving $94.3 million in donations as of August 27th, compared to $2.7 million during the same time period last year.

Perhaps more fascinating is the acceleration – by August 19th they’d only raised $22.6 million, but then donations started raining in at a rate of about $9 million per day.

So yes, all the ice and fuss is producing fundraising results.

Now let’s turn to the more interesting question:  But how?

Aren’t we just narcissstic for posting videos of ourselves dumping ice water over our heads and screeching like tweens at a slumber party?

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Early on in the Ice Bucket weeks, a skeptical and mildly grumpy Slate writer bemoaned the following: “few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”

He proposed the following alternative:

  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 &*!$ money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice. And if it’s an organization you really believe in, feel free to politely encourage your friends and family to do the same.”

Here’s why this argument gets human psychology totally wrong:

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There are two big ways people try and change others’ behavior.

The first is to do what your first instinct would be, and what the Slate writer did – tell them what you want them to do.

Save all the fuss and bother about buckets and ice, and just tell people to donate to ALS research.  Because donating is a good thing to do.  ALS is a terrible disease and you really, really should be aware of it and donate to help fund its medical eradication.

Psychologists call this creating a “prescriptive norm” – telling people what they should do.

But you know what?

Prescriptive norms aren’t that good at motivating behavior.

They’re kinda terrible, actually.

There are a hundred thousand things (at least) that you know you should do.

If prescriptive norms worked, we would all do what we’re told:  Exercise regularly, floss, donate to charity and research, eat vegetables, stop procrastinating, print more photos, meditate daily, get annual checkups and tests like clockwork, go to bed early, volunteer at animal shelters, minimize our screen time, read classic novels, watch documentaries, and so on.

People telling us what’s good for us doesn’t work.

But want to know what IS good at motivating behavior?

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Axing the prescriptive norms.

Then switching to descriptive norms:

Telling everyone what other people are already doing. 

You know the old parental “if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

Well, I think the Ice Bucket Challenge shows that if everyone poured a bucket of ice water over their head and/or donated to ALS research, you probably would too.

(For more examples of descriptive norms, see this post from my friend Melanie Tannenbaum over at Scientific American.)

And not only that, but the true brilliance of the Challenge is that not only do you see Patrick Stewart and Matt Damon doing it, but you see your next door neighbor doing it, your uncle Joe doing it, your local banker doing it.

The Slate writer gets things subtly, oh-so-subtly backwards.

People aren’t pouring ice water over their heads because they want everyone to pay attention to them.  They are doing it because their friends are doing it.  Yes, they were ‘challenged’ to do so, but they’re actually following through because they see it everywhere.  When all your friends appear to be doing something, it’s a peculiarly powerful motivator to get you to do it too.

You’re not so much focused on yourself, you’re focused on what everyone else is doing.

Yes, you could argue that you’re focused on others to make sure you’re keeping up your own image.  But if your image is molded by what others are doing, it’s still a socially-oriented activity rather than actual narcissism.

(And besides, in a world where 30% of the photos taken by 18-24-year-olds are selfies, filming oneself isn’t really indulging a new habit – if anything it’s just changing the subject for a few weeks.)

We like to bemoan descriptive norms and “doing what everyone is doing,” but they can have massive benefits for society.

People don’t stand in line at the store because it’s the rule, people stand in line because everyone else is standing in line.  We follow rules because we see other people following rules.  When we see masses of other people breaking rules, we tend to, too.

No amount of policing could enforce all pro-society behavior, so we have descriptive norms instead.  By and large, they get most of the job done.

So Slate’s advice is to do exactly the opposite of what was likely to work.  And their advice would not have resulted in over 90 million in donations – it probably would have resulted in exactly what ALS got last year – 35 times less.  Because the sight of everyone doing something is EXACTLY what is needed to spark a passive audience into action.

You can critique that such a social fad will be short-lived, and perhaps that is true – but so is any particular fundraising campaign.  Short-lived.  And at least now the ALS Association probably end up sitting on a fat nine-figure pile of money to think up their next one.

The ALS Association landed itself in the middle of this intersection of human motivation and behavior, but it certainly did not create it, and it will go on existing even after the buckets are put away.

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So getting back to what this has to do with you – pop quiz time:

Which do you think might be a more effective new promotion:

“Book your Christmas card session today!”

or –

“Anita just booked her Christmas card session – have you?”

Which item do you think people would pick from this list?

4×6      $7
8×12     $15
11×17    $32
16×24   $50
20×30   $78
30×40   $100

vs. this list:

4×6      $7
8×12     $15
11×17    $32
16×24   $50
20×30   $78  <— most popular!
30×40   $100

Which would be more likely to get someone to hurry:

48 hour sale!  Only 20 spots available!

vs.

48 hour sale!  Only 20 15 11 4 spots left!!

You probably aren’t going to start a viral trend involving ice and get people to hire you.  But you know what?  You don’t need to.

All you have to do is show people what people around them – people just like them – are currently doing.

Give them enough social examples, they’ll feel a familiar pull.

Give someone a “should” by itself?  They’ll just chuck it where they put all the other “shoulds.”

 ~

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Did you enjoy this post?

Maybe you like geeking out about psychology and taking a closer look at seemingly-common things.  Because by doing that you can snatch little nuggets to use later.  Just hop on my email list and I’ll keep you up to date!

 

Jenika

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30 Comments

  1. Spencer Lum on August 27, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    Fantastic article, Jenika! I read the Slate article, as well, and I loved your analysis. Spot on.

  2. Camille on August 27, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Loved the Harry Potter reference. ????

    • Jenika on August 27, 2014 at 9:21 pm

      Who doesn’t love a good Harry Potter reference? Hehe.

  3. Regina Marie on August 27, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    I love this explaination. I’ve been seeing everyone do the challenge, (as has nearly everyone), but actually getting to hear the psychology of WHY people are doing … that’s very cool. And I love there’s a name for it. (Other then “social proof”.)

    …Now, how to work out how to use this to my benefit.

  4. Christina Gressianu on August 27, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    I sent you an email before I realized I should have just commented here… Fantastic article! Thank you so much!!

  5. Sophie Callahan on August 27, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    What a truly fascinating post!! Personally I’m absolutely dreading being nominated and have avoided it as much as possible, lol, but only because I hate being on camera (ironically!!!) But this is certainly an incredibly helpful little tidbit and I guess explains clearly why tagging your clients on Facebook helps photography businesses virtually self perpetuate.

  6. Justine on August 27, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Such a great article and I love that you gave examples at the end! Wonderful!

  7. Victoria Hershman on August 27, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Lockhart… hahahahaha… I adore that man.

    I just wanted to say I just tried this with my four year old at dinner. I told him that mommy was going to finish her plate all gone. Was he going to finish his? He popped up and immediately said, “You and me together?? Yes!!”

    He did at least eat his chicken. Still working on the sweet potatoes. I love little tidbits of information that can not only help with my business but also my mom life. 😉

  8. Charlotte Reeves on August 27, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Seeing this ice bucket challenge constantly for the last few weeks has been doing my head in! But reading this blog article really helps give some perspective. Amazing what understanding human nature is capable of achieving. Thanks Jenika!

  9. Wayfaring Wanderer on August 28, 2014 at 2:51 am

    Awesome insight! I really appreciate the examples to show how this can be applied to businesses!

    Thank you for sharing!

  10. Robyn on August 28, 2014 at 7:17 am

    Loved this post! Makes so much sense, and really great advice on how to apply this into business life! Thanks, Jenika!

  11. Lisa Jacobs on August 28, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Brilliant read. Thank you.

  12. Victoria on August 28, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    You are brilliant, Jenika! Cannot wait for the juicy emails!!

  13. Rana on September 3, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    LOVE this post! I could read it 10 times over. Thank you!

  14. Mathew Donovan on September 13, 2014 at 5:25 am

    I actually wasn’t sure how to look at the entire ALS thing, and it seemed to have passed me without any challenge to myself, but I was caught between wondering WHY it worked so well in the first place, and why people were thinking that dumping water on themselves and behaving much like sheep following the herd was a big deal anyway… this lines it out in ways I can really understand. I simply made a donation to the ALS foundation of my choosing, quietly and without any fanfare. This blog is great by the way, I’m going to share this post with friends who have been debating this topic with me for WEEKS now.

  15. JoanieB on September 18, 2014 at 7:43 am

    Well your “Call To Action” really works …… Here I am answering the call. I enjoyed your blog and thought that it was well thought out and structured in a way that everyone got the idea about how infectious joining in with the crowd can actually be. Think about all the times you didn’t really want a product ……until everyone else wanted it and stocks were flying off the shelf. ” must get it now whilst stocks last”. Hmmmmmm Great article and I enjoyed reading it thanks 🙂

  16. Tracy Karkut-Law on September 23, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    Just found you by accident – read two articles already. Off to read another one!

  17. Mark Thackeray on October 9, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    Excellent article and insight! And the applications to photography are very powerful as well. That is precisely what happens when you tell your prospective clients something like, “most clients end up spending $$$..” You stated it brilliantly, and with much better vocabulary than I could have 🙂

  18. Kurt on October 17, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you for this refreshing view on the ice bucket mania.
    After reading your article i will have to reconsider my initial opinion on this.
    Thanks again. I love your site.
    Kurt

  19. Jordan Baker on October 22, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Really great piece, I never thought of it in that why until i read this article, Thanks

  20. Anthony on November 18, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Very well-put explanation of a trend I thought would decimate the world’s reserve of ice-water.

  21. Heather @ Epic Photo Lab on November 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Great points! And my next door neighbor DID do the ice bucket challenge 🙂

  22. Atlanta Photographer on December 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    I think if anything it taught us how awareness is the key. If it’s not in the public eye or mind then people tend to forget about things. I only hope that it continues and people don’t move on to the next cause and forget about the effects ALS has on people and their families.

  23. Produktfotografering on January 9, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    The icebucket challange have even spred to Sweden! Keep up the good work!

  24. Sandals on March 11, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Great Examples at the end, i thoroughly enjoyed this read!

  25. Rayvin on March 12, 2015 at 3:34 am

    this is amazing

  26. Trent on March 18, 2015 at 12:58 am

    It’s totally possible if not easy to explain virality post factum.
    Now let’s try to replicate it 🙂

  27. Lu on March 19, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    I love how you’re deconstructing the psychology behind these memes, but if I may inject a couple of thoughts:

    In your “48 hour sale! Only 20 spots available!” example, you’re using both a time limit and the seat limit, but assuming that it’s the seat limit that is making people act. Second, you’re assuming the seat limit is working by making people think other people are doing it so they should, too.

    That’s not the way I think of it. If I see a time limit or the seat count going down, I’m thinking I have less and less time to act before I miss the opportunity. I actually don’t care if other people are buying or not. The question is, how much do I want it, and will this be the only chance to get it (at this discount, for example).

    With the book countdown on Amazon, it doesn’t make me want to buy the book if there are only 2 copies left. I don’t care if a million people have bought the book and gave it 5 stars. That doesn’t mean anything to me. I also know that Amazon is going to restock the book once it’s out, so there’s really no urgency.

    On the other hand, at a book site like BookOutlet.com, the countdown really means I have to seriously consider how badly I want the book because once it’s out of stock, it may never be available there again.

    My second thought is, are you actually labelling your most popular item on your menu, or are you “influencing” it to be your most popular item by labelling it such first? Chicken or egg? What if the most popular item is really the 8×12? What if you don’t want to sell more 8x12s?

    Frankly, when I see things labelled this way (“««most popular!”), I don’t think those are truth statements but marketing statements intended to get me to buy what they want me to buy. To convince me what are actually the most popular items sold, you’d have to show me a bar chart showing the number of each item that was bought by customers in the past 5 years. And even then, I might dispute the authenticity of the data source (does the data automatically update every time there’s a sale? does it update when I make a purchase?).

    And no, there was no earthly way I was pouring a bucket of ice on my head just because a lot of other people were doing it online. Truthfully, the mere fact that so many people were doing it and posting videos of it was the main dissuading factor. The other main dissuading factor was there was no reason to do the ice bucket if you were willing to write a cheque and I was willing to write a cheque.

    So, third thought: what about people like me who run the other way when we see a trend coming? What about people who don’t want to do what everyone else is doing? Are these people just the off-radar people that marketing doesn’t work on? What if my clientele are just these people?

    To be clear, I’m not disputing the science! I’m just wondering about edge cases and ethical issues.

    • Jenika on March 19, 2015 at 10:23 pm

      Great questions Lu!

      1) With regard to the “I don’t care how many other people are doing it” – that’s true, but how many other people are doing it DOES influence your ability to buy it, no? Some people are influenced purely by the social proof of how popular it is – that is undeniable. But you’re right, there’s a second element here – is it my last chance to get it? Even then the number of other people acting still matters. Because if there are 20 spots available, but you see that there are 16, 9, 4, 3, 2….you see that hey, there are other people deciding right now so I need to decide faster. That time pressure is caused by what others are doing so the two are intertwined. If there are 20 spots open but no one is booking, you have longer to decide. If they are booking, you have less time. So it’s still socially-oriented.

      2) I think you and I are a lot alike – both inclined to like something less when everyone is doing it. 😉 I don’t advocate lying and saying the 16×24 is most popular if it’s actually the 8×12, but if that were the case you could say something that would be ethically accurate – like “best value” or “editor’s top pick” next to 16×24. The point is really that when people are confronted with a list of numbers (sizes and prices) and they are not experts, they’re going to look and see what others are doing (there are studies to back that up). If others tend to book x package because it really is the best and that’s what you recommend to everyone so they end up going with it, you can honestly save everyone time by saying “this one is the most popular” because it’s what people end up going with. If you want to sell something that isn’t currently being bought, you could pick another adjective which wouldn’t take advantage of social proof but would simply be an expertise cue, which others might use as an anchor point for their decision even if they don’t end up getting that exact thing.

      Hope that makes some sense! 🙂

  28. Douglas White on April 13, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    This was an excellent article I think I will try that just to see what happens. Instead of sitting in a restaurant watching people we can send out a notice and see how people respond. Looking forward to reading more of articles. I found you through an article you were in, in Turning Pro magazine.

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