Ice In A Bucket

This time last month, you’d probably never heard of the ice bucket challenge. Since then, it has grown into one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns of all time, and we’ve all been…well…doused.

The phenomenon has sparked a series of hilarious fails, inspired a new genre of bucket challenges, and garnered a fair share of criticism. It has also raised over $100 million since July 29 for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), an astonishing 3,504% increase over donations during this same period last year.

With the barrage of videos slowly working their way out of our Facebook feeds, we decided it was finally time to take a look back at the data behind the ice bucket challenge. We downloaded and profiled a 1,500 randomly-selected #icebucketchallenge videos using the YouTube API, and then uploaded the raw data to RJMetrics for analysis. (If you’d like to try RJMetrics for your own business, click here for a 14 day free trial.)

Our complete findings, which also provide some insights into the allegations of “slacktivism,” are included below. Here are some highlights:

  • 20% of participants took the challenge indoors
  • Participants were 2x more likely to be male than female
  • 1 in 4 participants didn’t even mention ALS in their video
  • Only 1 in 5 participants mentioned a donation

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Taking a look at the basics

Dumping a bucket of ice and water on one’s head is an activity best suited for the outdoors. Yet almost 10% chose an indoor, non-bathtub environment.


During the course of our research we noticed another unmistakable trend: the majority of those getting iced were males. Women made up about 30% of participants in the challenge.


Surprising gender breakdown of the #icebucketchallenge

Ice bucket fails have already become a genre of their own, with many of the best involving a “helper” who accidentally drops the bucket on the person’s head. Oops! We were curious how many people did the dumping themselves vs. recruited some help. It was a close split with only a small majority (53%) electing to have someone dump the bucket for them.


Slacktivisim or Successive Approximations?

With our basic curiosities appeased, we set out to address some tougher questions.

One of the harshest criticisms leveraged against the campaign is that it’s just another example of “slacktivism”. This relatively new term is associated with philanthropic half-measures in which contributors feel satisfied to donate with their tweets and shares rather than their wallets. More extreme versions of the argument claim that these slacktivists are more focused on bringing attention to themselves than to a charitable cause.

There is certainly some data to uphold this claim: a whopping 26% of participants didn’t even mention ALS in their videos. And a paltry 20% of participants mentioned donating money.

A whopping 26% didn’t mention ALS in their #icebucketchallenge videos.



Only 20% of participants mentioned making a donation in their #icebucketchallenge videos.

So was this whole thing just a big waste of time? Hardly. Don’t forget about that $100 Million! With a 20% conversion rate from dumper to donor, this campaign was still able to generate some serious cash thanks to the size of its reach.

Even with the slacktivists slacking away, the campaign worked because, for enough people, it “hooked” something deep in their psychology. By getting our attention with an entertaining video and a simple message, the campaign moved millions of people one step closer to donating than they would have been otherwise.

This phenomenon is known as “successive approximations”, or more commonly as the-foot-in-the-door technique. The gist is that, by getting people to make a small commitment, they become emotionally invested and more likely to make a bigger commitment.

Instead of heading straight to a call to donate, the ice bucket challenge asks people to take a series of small steps:

  • Step 1: Participate in the ice bucket challenge
  • Step 2: Mention ALS
  • Step 3: Donate money
  • Step 4: Publicly call out your friends to do the same

This technique escalates commitment, and the data shows it:

Participants who mentioned ALS were 5x more likely to donate, doing so 25% of the time vs. just 5% for those who didn’t mention the cause.

People who mention ALS in #icebucketchallenge videos 5x more likely to donate.


Participants who donated were 12% more likely to nominate their friends, doing so at 89% vs. 79% for non-donators. They also nominated 29% more people on average: donators nominated 3.98 people where non-donators nominated 3.09 people.

The data couldn’t be more clear: the strategy of escalating commitment works. At every stage in the ice bucket challenge process, people who participated in the prior stage are more likely to continue participating.

Secret to #icebucketchallenge success?: “escalating commitment” strategy

Was it Worth It?

So, were there slacktivists participating in the ice bucket challenge? Absolutely, but passive consumers are the byproduct of any conversion funnel. The slacktivists are “exhaust” that is generated by creating new donors and raising awareness. Not a bad tradeoff in my opinion.

The ice bucket challenge has raised $100 million for ALSA while growing our collective awareness for a rare, painful disease. In addition, the very nature of successive approximations suggests that those who completed each of these small steps will continue to feel an emotional investment in the future success of ALS research. We’ll raise a bucket to that.


It’s not news that businesses that use data get better results. But while we know this works in business, it’s still rare to see analytical rigor applied in an area like charity. This seems short-sighted. If businesses that use data see 33% more revenue and 12x profit growth, what kind of impact could data have in the work of helping humanity?

If you’re a certain kind of data nerd with aspirations of making the world of better place, you create a charity like GiveDirectly. Two friends pursuing advanced degrees in economic development at Harvard and MIT founded the organization in 2008 when they were looking for the best ROI for their own donated money.

GiveDirectly does something pretty radical for a charity: it raises money, and then gives it away to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. No strings. No requirements. Very little overhead.

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This holiday season we wanted to do something as a company to contribute to those less fortunate than us. A few members of our team previously worked at companies that organize canned food drives, but I’m not a big fan. While I think that any effort to help others is worthwhile, the data indicates that canned food drives are not particularly effective. If your goal is to feed the hungry, you can help 20 times as many people by giving cash to hunger relief organizations rather than using cash to buy cans of food.

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While we are proud of each of our clients, I think it’s important to spotlight one in particular that is doing a great service to humanity. is a non-profit microlending site founded by that allows individuals to make loans to specific entrepreneurs in the West Bank. The idea is that bottom-up economic development and cross-cultural collaboration can play a role in bringing about a more peaceful Middle East. The site was in private beta until their public launch yesterday evening. Over the course of their pilot they had a 100% loan repayment rate.

Some very interesting institutions are involved with, including the Clinton Global Initiative, Ashoka (the world’s largest association of social entrepreneurs), and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s International Consulting Organization.

We’re proud to be involved with in two ways. First of all, they are running all of their analytics on RJMetrics in order to track metrics on lenders, borrowers, loans, and donations. This data set will only get more interesting as lender activity increases. Secondly, RJMetrics is helping to fund an entrepreneur named Rabiha Al-Matahenah who needs an additional $600 to meet her $1,000 goal to expand her sewing business. Please join us and make a loan at today.