When the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge hit the Internet in 2014, the branding world was thrown for a loop. Many marketers didn’t realize that content could go viral in that capacity—especially for a nonprofit.
Three young men living with the neurodegenerative disease ALS started the challenge of pouring buckets of ice water on their heads, filming it, posting it on social media, and inviting others to take the plunge. Within just a month, more than 17 million ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos were posted on Facebook in September, driving more than 10 billion views by over 440 million people. Celebrities like Lady Gaga, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and LeBron James also took part.
As a result, the ALS Association raised $115 million to continue conducting research and spreading awareness about the disease.
The campaign wasn’t actually started by the nonprofit itself. But nonprofit organizations can learn a great deal from viral phenomena like this one. They make fascinating case studies in creating shareable content, mobilizing influencers, and building interactive and engaging campaigns for social channels.
Here are five viral nonprofit campaigns and what marketers can learn from them.
While the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a one-hit wonder, the Movember Foundation has managed to hijack the month of November every year since it was founded in 2003, and gradually expand its audience every time.
Two friends started the nonprofit in Australia to spread awareness about men’s health issues like prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health. They had a fun and simple idea: Invite men to grow their moustaches all month in November. They managed to get 30 people on board in the first year. The next year, they had built a community of 480 people and raised $40,851 to fund men’s health projects. By 2010, they had more than 1 million participants across 11 countries, generating over $157 million since their founding.
Movember has now been “attended” by over 5.5 million people across 20 countries, generating over $700 million to fund 1,200 men’s health projects.
Each year, men continue to wear this campaign on their faces and spread the word by sharing their photos on social media and hosting their own Movember events. To help, the Movember Foundation offers a range of downloadable resources like shareable infographics, social media templates, guides, calendars, and fundraising toolkits.
The movement has garnered support from celebrities like Chris Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Ryan Reynolds, and David Beckham. Men’s lifestyle publisher Made Men even created a video series on how to grow moustache with actor and moustache connoisseur Nick Offerman. The Movember Foundation also recently created a three-part TV series called “Man Up” for Australian network ABC; it covers gender stereotypes, the challenges of manhood, and mental health issues.
The takeaway: Make it multi-platform
There’s no denying that the Movember Foundation took advantage of many platforms to help spread the word about their campaign. They even started with a platform that everyone can use —their own face! Once people grew their moustaches, they were able to participate by downloading and sharing digital content, watching a YouTube series and TV show, printing assets like calendars, and hosting their own in-person events for friends and family. In this way, the Movember Foundation left no stone and unturned and made it as easy as possible for advocates to join in.
In March 2014, author Laura Lippman tweeted a picture of herself without makeup in support of actress Kim Novak, who was criticized after she attended the Oscars without makeup. More women soon joined in by posting their own no-makeup selfies. But it wasn’t until weeks later when 18-year-old Fiona Cunningham attached the trend to cancer research.
“The no-makeup selfie craze really captured my imagination and I was amazed at the response from people around the world and just thought how great it would be if it could be done for charity,” she said. “After seeing nothing similar on Facebook or Twitter, I thought there was something in it that it could raise awareness of cancer.”
Cunningham created a Facebook page called “No Make Up Selfie For Cancer Awareness” and encouraged friends and their networks to post their pictures on the page and donate to Cancer Research UK. The campaign was particularly easy to join, as it was predicated on not making yourself presentable for social media.
Within 24 hours, people had raised £1 million for the organization.
“In the morning, we’d seen an enormous increase in website visits, huge engagement on Twitter and people asking us how they could help further,” said Charlotte Beaty-Pownall, Senior PR & Social Media Officer at Cancer Research UK.
The nonprofit quickly joined the campaign with its own tweet, featuring its Science Information Officer, Dr. Kat Arney.
By the end of the week, Cancer Research UK had raised £8 million in donations.
The takeaway: Keep an eye on your audience
As Cancer Research UK learned, your audience may be starting a movement right under your nose. You just need to be sure you’re listening! These grassroots campaigns may even be more successful than those started by nonprofits or agencies—for the simple fact that they’re created by the community itself and not a marketing executive.
As BuzzFeed UK editor Luke Lewis wrote for The Guardian, “There is nothing more tragic than a publisher or marketer self-consciously trying to go viral. #nomakeupselfie was all about authenticity ... People bought into it precisely because it wasn't engineered deliberately by Cancer Research UK. It was a rare example of pure, not manufactured, virality.”
Senior Designer Robert Villaflor first joined the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in 2006 partly because of its logo: a simple yellow equal sign inside of a blue square, designed in 1995 by firm Stone Yamashita and initiated by HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch, who was an attorney for Apple.
The logo has since made the transition into the digital age and endured various iterations, becoming a symbol not just for the HRC but for the LGBTQ equality movement as a whole.
“I was really interested in this organization that had an iconic logo, and I immediately set out to try to give ourselves an even firmer identity,” Villaflor said.
Contrary to what he’d learned in design school, however, that didn’t mean protecting and preserving an untouchable brand. It meant giving himself permission to create different versions of the iconic logo, and even empower supporters to create their own.
“That just broke all of the design lessons I learned in school: You don't mess with the logo,” he said. “It was eye-opening.”
Most notably, a red variation the HRC logo went viral on Facebook in 2013.
The nonprofit was planning for a rally in Washington D.C. as the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in two marriage equality cases. They were working with other groups, and all agreed to use red—for love—as the main color for even signs and T-shirts.
“And kind of on a whim, our Marketing Director at the time said that we should do something on our Facebook page,” Villaflor said.
The HRC changed its Facebook profile photo to the red logo and asked others to followed suit.
“And then our servers crashed.”
According to Facebook, 3 million people shared the logo, 800 variations were made, and the social network saw a 120% increase in profile photo updates.
“It was this really powerful moment in the marriage debate,” Villaflor said. “It brought this attention to our work. We didn’t even expect it to be that big, and were just amazed at how that really took off.”
Celebrities, brands, and politicians also jumped on board. Facebook users even created their own versions of the red logo.
“It was just that idea of opening yourself and letting your supporters really engage with you in this direct way,” Villaflor said. “That was a really powerful lesson.”
It wasn’t just about the design, however. It was about spreading this message of equality and inclusivity.
“It got people to realize that people they knew, people in their Facebook communities, were OK with with the LGBTQ community,” Villaflor said. “It wasn't something that they may have ever talked about or expressed before, but when they would see family members or friends (sharing this logo), it had this ripple effect. It was really incredible.”
The takeaway: Give supporters a template
If you want your campaign to go viral, you need to accept the fact that it will, at some point, take on a life of its own. This means you will lose some control over your message, but you’ll also ideally expand your reach. The HRC’s red logo, for example, essentially became a template that supporters used to make their own creations. This allowed audiences to share this cause with their own unique voice, and it gave the HRC a level of exposure that no one expected.
In November 2013, the city of San Francisco came together to help five-year-old Miles Scott realize his dream: be Batman for a day. The Make-a-Wish Foundation was set to facilitate this dream for Scott, who was finishing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia. They were going to turn the city into Gotham, and create an event in which Scott could rescue a damsel in distress, stop a robbery, and win the key to the city from the mayor.
But content agency Clever Girls Collective help spread the word and Batkid a viral phenomenon. Clever Girls co-founder Stefania Pomponi offered to do the work pro-bono, creating the @SFWish Twitter account and #SFbatkid hashtag. The agency also activated its network of over 6,000 social influencers and launched a live Twitter chat. Celebrities and politicians like President Barack Obama, Ben Affleck, Britney Spears, and the San Francisco 49ers even shared their support on social media.
On the day of the event, Clever Girls had a team of people traveling with Scott, tweeting for the campaign accounts, and drumming up conversation with the #SFBatkid hashtag. They also had people monitoring the social streams and responding to high-profile participants.
"Every member of the Clever Girls team was empowered to engage,” Pomponi said. “A successful social campaign requires authentic, in-the-moment interactions to resonate with people and bring the story to life.”
The event generated nearly 600,000 tweets and 1.7 billion social impressions, driving 1,000 visits per second to the Make-a-Wish website at the peak of the global conversation. On the big day, 20,000 people showed up to see Scott be a hero and live his dream.
Scott is now a big brother and little-league baseball player, and forever a San Francisco legend.
The takeaway: Embrace influencer marketing
Influencer marketing is one of the most popular marketing strategies today. By partnering with social influencers, brands can outsource content creation and reach built-in, engaged, and loyal audiences. That’s part of why influencer marketing played a key role in Clever Girls’ campaign for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
“There’s a lot of research to support that influencers are powerful, trusted recommenders,” Pomponi said. “The metrics and data definitely prove that what we do can be successful.”
Still, it’s crucial for the nonprofit or agency to come to those influencers with a clear goal in mind. This allows the influencers to make the most informed decisions for their content and audiences.
“Even before the thought of an influencer campaign comes to mind, we always counsel that you need to start with a goal, and is that goal realistic, and what are the business reasons for that goal?” Pomponi added.
And it always has to start with a really great story to tell.
Clever Girls had that great story with Batkid.
Public service announcements don’t often go viral. But this one from the Ad Council—a nonprofit that promotes campaigns around public issues—did.
In 2015, the organization launched Love Has No Labels, a movement to celebrate diversity and fight bias. They worked with digital agency R/GA to create a publicity stunt on Valentine’s Day. It showed couples and loved ones behind a giant, simulated X-ray screen so spectators could only see their skeletons—not their gender, race, religion, sexuality, or age. The participants eventually stepped out in front of the screen, revealing that they may be different in some ways, but beneath it all, they’re just human. And love has no labels.
As the Ad Council wrote, “[It] challenges us to open our eyes to our bias and prejudice and work to stop it in ourselves, our friends, our families, and our colleagues.”
The event was filmed and turned into a video that quickly went viral across the Internet, generating more than 164 million views and winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Commercial.
The campaign was also backed by a robust social media distribution strategy. For one, people were invited to visit the Love Has No Labels website and upload their own photos to create their own share shareable graphics with the “love has no labels” caption and border.
The Ad Council also partnered with Upworthy—one of the biggest Facebook publishers at the time—to post the exclusive debut of the video. The nonprofit even created a Tumblr blog and quiz through which people could examine their own biases.
As a result, Ad Council drove more than 2.7 million visits to its campaign site and saw over 30,000 uses of the #LoveHasNoLabels hashtag.
The takeaway: Reinvent an established content format
The Ad Council was on mission to change cultural biases. In doing so, they changed an established content format: the public service announcement. They took traditional ways of thinking and turned them on their heads. Most importantly, they didn’t do it just to be different or contrarian. They did it to spread a message that they believed in and they were confident others would believe in as well. While it was a risk, it paid off in the form of a viral video phenomenon.
It’s hard to say, “I’m going to set out to create a viral campaign.” Viral campaigns by their nature are unpredictable and often unprecedented in many ways. Meaning there’s no proven formula for building one.
Even brands that have already led viral campaigns can’t necessarily make them happen again. For example, the ALS Association tried to recreate the Ice Bucket Challenge, but didn’t find the same success as they did that fateful summer in 2014.
"I think we learned you can't capture lightning in a bottle twice," said Brian Frederick, Executive Vice President of Communications and Development for the ALS Association. "We realized [the Ice Bucket Challenge] needed to be looked at more like a historical moment, when everybody came together and did something that really had a huge impact on ALS."
Still, what nonprofits can do is study past campaigns, pull important lessons from them, and incorporate those lessons into their strategies. This way, you can be sure you’re building content that’s likely to drive shares, engagements, and donations.
Use those strategies in enough campaigns and variations, and you may find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right audience—holding lightning in a bottle.