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Creativity of ALS ice bucket challenge boosts charity's success

SALT LAKE CITY — Millions of ice cubes and gallons of water dominated social media around the world with the ALS Association Ice Bucket Challenge.

“ALS has kind of become a household acronym over the past two or three weeks, and that's rare and unique,” said Avery Holton, a professor of communications at the University of Utah, in reference to the fundraiser to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

It's the goal of every charitable organization — spreading awareness and raising funds for a specific cause.

Holton said social media has changed many causes through viral awareness. In a given day, more than 50 billion pieces of content are shared, he said.

"We can get some kind of common theme running through that, something that really catches people's attention," Holton said. "Then it helps with the awareness of that particular message."

In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, he said there are a few key elements that make organizations successful.

“There are three keys: pressure, personalization, and then a feeling of belonging to that effort,” Holton said. "We had people responding to something that looked fun, that sounded different, but what also had a good cause related to it."

Seeing friends and family join in made others want to accept the challenge, he said.

“It's a fun pressure, right?" Holton said. "It's not, 'You must give or you're a bad person.' It's, 'Hey, join us.'"

The personalization comes with each participant's ability to accept the challenge on their own terms, he said.

"You're able to give however much you want to give. You're able to talk to the people you want to talk to," Holton said.

The Draper Police Department personalized its ice bucket challenge by representing 137 fallen officers.

“I think it's something fun, and it's an easy way to get people to gather around a cause,” Draper Police Chief Bryan Roberts said.

For some, the challenge became somewhat of a game — an excuse to be in front of a camera, Holton said.

"It's up to you to decide whether you want to make this into a game and something you might forget 24 hours after you post it, or whether you really want to be immersed in this or any other cause," he said.

Like the Draper Police Department, Tami Steggell didn't want to just be part of the trend.

“I began to wonder, 'How many of these people are actually donating to ALS or just being a part of the fad and a little bit of attention-getters,'" she said. “I didn't want to be just an attention-getter.”

So Steggell decided to accept the challenge for a cause that is important to her.

She chose multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects her manager's husband, and several family members and friends.

The attention the challenge brings to giving is good, Steggell said.

“It helps people grow personally," she said. "It helps the community grow, and it helps people who are receiving to grow.”

Whether the people liked it or not, the ice bucket challenge fulfilled its purpose, Holton said.

“We're raising money, awareness. We're raising awareness simply by posting a video,” he said. “Even if it's goofy or gimmicky or seems silly to some folks, it's still raising awareness.

But not all campaigns are as grass-roots, Holton said. Successful marketing campaigns are usually very calculated.

“We go back and look at the pink campaign. The color was chosen for a reason. The ribbons were chosen for a reason. The spokespeople were chosen for a reason,” he said.

And it paid off. The Susan G. Komen nonprofit organization's fight against breast cancer is one of the largest and most widely known charities in the U.S.

Now for charities to stand out, it's about "click bait" — charities attempting to find something that is interesting online, Holton said.

“But now we're starting to move into a new age of social media where there is some of the altruism … connected with some of this fun effort,” he said.

For other charitable organizations, such as the American Heart Association, the ice bucket challenge served as a teaching moment.

“It made me stop and think that I need to do more with our social media. I absolutely need to engage more,” said Jennifer Merback, communication and marketing director for the American Heart Association.

Sometimes it's about not giving up, she said, and sometimes it's about luck.

"Sometimes things don't quite resonate and you have to keep trying, keep collaborating and keep brainstorming with fun ideas," Merback said.

As the ice bucket challenge fizzles out, ALS Association may come up with something new, Holton said, and maybe it won’t.

“But regardless, they've succeeded in their effort, right? And that effort is to raise awareness and to raise research funds,” Holton said. "At the end of the day, social media's really built to help us connect with each other, whether we use it in that way or not."

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com