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

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.

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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.

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Surprising gender breakdown of the #icebucketchallenge http://ow.ly/B2aFB pic.twitter.com/TuGkO2RI8C

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.

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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. http://ow.ly/B2aFB pic.twitter.com/Zc0b521DAw

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Only 20% of participants mentioned making a donation in their #icebucketchallenge videos. http://ow.ly/B2aFB pic.twitter.com/5VoXDGMew9

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. http://ow.ly/B2aFB

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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 http://ow.ly/B2aFB

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.

  • Terry Gillan

    While we are asking “Was it worth it?”, how many hours did it take an employee to manually tag 1,500 youtube videos? Was that worth the publicity generated by this blog post?

    • http://rjmetrics.com/ Tristan Handy

      Hey Terry! We briefly touched on this but didn’t give it much ink–we used mechanical turk (http://mturk.com) to classify the videos. Pulling the data, posting the jobs to mechanical turk, and analyzing the data in RJMetrics were all pretty straightforward.

      We use this strategy a lot and have written about it before (https://blog.rjmetrics.com/2014/02/13/a-pr-hacking-code-of-conduct/). It’s been incredibly successful for us over the years 🙂

  • kashiv

    Is this what passes for research at rjmetrics

  • Tejash D Mehta

    amazing findings..sad that the intent of this campaign is not fulfilled and people took it for their own advantage and publicity

  • Christina Ayoub

    Very interesting study! I was waiting for someone to do this.

  • http://jminton.carbonmade.com/ Jessica Minton

    Could you please list your data sources?