Published on 2014/09/17

The Ice Bucket Challenge and Other Phenomena: Four Ways Higher Ed Marketers Can Leverage Different Disciplines (Part 1)

The Ice Bucket Challenge and Other Phenomena: Four Ways Higher Ed Marketers Can Leverage Different Disciplines (Part 1)
The Ice Bucket Challenge was an unprecedented success for the ALS Association, and higher education marketers can learn a few of the lessons that made the campaign, as well as other marketing home runs, successful.
Just over a month ago, as you checked your Facebook account to see what your friends and family had been doing over the course of the previous hour/day/weekend/week — depending on your “Facebook frequency” — you couldn’t help noticing you or someone you knew was tagged to take the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” You saw them take the challenge, and then you saw them tag more people. The rest is history; the proof is in the pudding, as the results show.

On August 29, a press release reported that the ALS Association had surpassed the $100 million mark in donations.[1] As of September 12, this figure stood at a whopping $112.4 million, a significant amount given that the full year revenue for ALSA in 2013, as reported by Wikipedia, was $24 million.[2]

There’s no question this is the power of social media as a campaign vehicle, but what’s the innate characteristic that made Ice Bucket Challenge so powerful and successful? Perhaps more importantly, what can higher education marketers learn from this?

The Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t the only example; innovation blockbusters occur regularly, whether it was creating network effects such as Gillette giving out razors as freebies to increase the sale of blades, or using logistics and supply chain management to develop small markets (e.g. Sam Walton establishing Wal-Mart stores in small towns as opposed to big cities). How about using mathematics and statistics to transform a simple act of searching into a $56 billion business called Google or creating the era of digital marketing?[3]

When phenomena like these occur, they pave the way for the enrichment of the marketing body of knowledge by cross-pollinating it with other disciplines. In its responsibilities as a key constituent for success, marketing has evolved from a basic grassroots approach to a much more complex and intricately involved discipline and such increasing demand cannot be serviced by merely relying on the core body of marketing knowledge.[4] Are higher education marketers using this interdisciplinary knowledge to build specialized campaigns? I consider the following things important in this respect.

The Heart: Understanding Customer Behavior and Motivations

Linked Disciplines: Psychology and Sociology

Practitioners and psychologists are already at work trying to break down the Ice Bucket Challenge in an attempt to understand what may have caused this viral propagation.[5] One reason is peer pressure — psychologists call these “descriptive norms” where people look at others to follow what’s being done, as opposed to “prescriptive norms” where you’re expected to do something when told to do so. Another is guilt; yet another is public exposure and personal “image” management due to being called out in the open.

Regardless of the reasons, the underlying factors in the example above demonstrate some key attributes rooted in psychology and sociology. While this does not imply that marketers should expect to become social scientists, it emphasizes the importance of understanding the target customer not just in terms of demographic data, but also in terms of explicit psychographics (what they do and how they behave) and non-explicit motivations.

A good segment profile should cover as many of these attributes as possible. Depending on budget and other considerations, one method would be to have varied degrees of profile information that gets more specific toward the core response channels; the implicit motivations determine the messaging and the call to action.

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[1] Munk, C. (2014). Individuals, Organizations and Corporations Respond With Immense Generosity to Ice Bucket Challenge [Press release]. Retrieved from

[2] ALS Association. (2014, September 12, 2014). from

[3] Google’s Income Statement Information (2014). From

[4] Bartels, R. (1976). The History of Marketing Thought (2nd ed.) and Singh, R. (2014). Demystifying Data-Driven Approaches: Three Facts.

[5] Bershidsky, L. (2014). Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Worked.  Retrieved from

This is the first of a two-part series by Ramendra Singh discussing four areas of understanding that higher education marketers could leverage to improve the success of their marketing efforts. In the second part, Singh shares the last three strategies.

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Readers Comments

Jessica Monohan 2014/09/17 at 4:57 pm

I think it’s going to be hard for higher ed marketers to catch lighningbugs the same way the ALS Assoc did. it’s interesting to break down all the elements that went into the success of that project and perhaps we can take elements out that try getting at prospective students in new ways, but I don’t think we’ll ever get that level of success.

    Sarah Rarier 2014/09/18 at 9:31 am

    I don’t think the article is suggesting that we can outdo the ALS Association – simply that we can learn a lot from their experience this year. For example, a campaign to get people to make quick videos saying three things higher ed did for their lives and getting them to share it and tag friends. There’s a lot we can learn.

John Edwards 2014/09/17 at 5:00 pm

It’s important not to oversimplify how the public gets swept up into viral marketing campaigns, but Singh does a great job in this first piece of outlining one of the elements that goes into reaching students in new ways. I’m really excited for the conclusion.

Rebecca Muir 2014/09/19 at 10:20 am

Singh makes a good point that institutions need to develop clear customer profiles before launching targeted marketing efforts. The more detailed a profile can get, and the more it can analyze that psychosocial aspect that Singh discusses, the more useful it will be in helping institutions create effective marketing campaigns not based on stereotypes of adult and non-traditional students, but on real behavioral patterns.

Helen Lawrence 2014/09/19 at 10:31 am

Given the sudden popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge, I have no doubt social scientists and psychologists will be spending the next few years dissecting how and why it went viral the way it did. I would caution, though, that not all of its lessons can be immediately applied to higher ed recruitment. The Ice Bucket Challenge was a low-stakes effort that had very little personal cost (other than a temporary chill) and was largely framed as an altruistic act. The same cannot be said of the decision to enrol in higher ed. Since they start from such different bases, there will be a limit to how much the insights from the Ice Bucket Challenge can be applied to higher ed marketing.

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