AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

How and Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Works

Fish recently wrote about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, explaining the mathematical constructs behind viral growth.  If you read the article, you may have pondered how something like the Ice Bucket Challenge goes viral.  Ponder no more!  This article briefly explains our research into the drivers of viral growth.  For a deeper explanation, pick up a copy of our recently published book The Power of Customer Misbehavior.

First and foremost, for anything to go “viral”, it must be both be easy to use and useful to the user.  The ease with which one can use a cell phone to take and post video nearly anywhere fulfills the ease of use requirement.   Usefulness is also clearly fulfilled as a requirement as most people participating in the challenge see the value in contributing to a cause as worthy as ALS (commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

These two requirements (ease of use and usefulness), while necessary, aren’t sufficient to trigger viral growth.  Think of all the things in your life that are both useful and easy to use but that have not gone “viral” or “exploded” in their adoption within some confined time period.  These may range from anything from the type of soap that you use to a brand of underwear that you wear.   Another example may be a particular type of tool that you like to use around the house.  Maybe it is a type of light bulb of which you are particularly fond, a skin care product that you use or a brand of toothbrush you commonly purchase.  Why don’t these things, which are incredibly useful and easy to use explode in their usage overnight?  There are lots of common answers, including commoditization of these particular products, price, etc.  But these answers alone don’t have statistically strong explanatory powers.

One reason we uncovered from our research is that these products don’t allow people to interact with them and co-create or co-produce value.  Co-creation is the commonly defined as an act of creating value through content contribution and co-production is the act of using a product in new and unforeseen ways.  The Ice Bucket challenge does both of these.  Individuals co-create by producing new content videos of them getting soaked (see Bill Gates or George W as examples).  As importantly, users can modify and extend the format (co-production) by changing the challenge in new and innovative ways.  Charlie Sheen is a perfect example of a move of co-production (note the tag line – “big twist” in the article).

Knowing that usefulness, ease of use, the ability to co-create and co-produce are key to viral growth is indeed useful.  But these examples may leave you wondering why one would co-create or co-produce in the first place?  We use the example of Harley Davidson in the Power of Customer Misbehavior to explain exactly this question.  Why do people purchase and then modify (co-produce and co-create) Harleys?  These beautiful rides certainly aren’t cheap!

The answer to this question is that people modify Harleys (think of the origination of the “chopper”) because of what it says about them.  “I’m a free spirit” or “I’m a rebel” or “I’m a badass biker dude who also happens to be an accountant”.  The act of creating something with their “hogs” says something unique about them while simultaneously helping them to identify with another group of people.  The same is true for why we might wear NFL football jerseys or collegiate “hoodies”.  These things are all part of our identity.  Participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge identifies us with our friends, family and others who are of a similar philanthropic mind.  We get to show to others that we care and in so doing affiliate ourselves with others who care.

The model below, from The Power of Customer Misbehavior, shows these relationships.  Briefly, the ALS Challenge works because it is useful (gives to a good cause), is easy to use (take a video and post), allows us to co-create and co-produce (add valuable content and modify/extend the content) and says something about us to others (identity).

POCM Model












If you enjoyed this article, please pick up a copy of the Power of Customer Misbehavior.  And please give to ALS.  It is a cause near and dear to our firm’s heart as historically military veterans represent a statistically disproportionately large share of people afflicted with this terrible disease.