American Marketing Association of Las Vegas

ALS Fundraising Takes the Plunge with Experiential Marketing

By now, thousands of Americans (and a growing number of people outside the U.S.) have filmed themselves dumping buckets of ice water over their heads in an effort to raise awareness of and boost research funds for a neurological disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The filmed exhibitions of charitable concern are part of a social-media-based fundraising effort, dubbed the Ice Bucket Challenge, that quickly went viral this summer after friends of former Boston College athlete Pete Frates, diagnosed with ALS in 2012, kicked off the campaign in an attempt to generate funds for ALS research in Frates’ honor. Their unofficial effort garnered attention from Boston athletes and the local media, and has since spread worldwide. As of Aug. 25, the grassroots initiative had helped raise $79.7 million for the cause, according to the ALS Association, the effort’s primary beneficiary, compared with the $2.5 million that the association generated for the cause during the same period in 2013.

The effort’s success, experts say, lies in its simplicity, and in its ability to engage potential donors via an experiential fundraising and awareness-building message. Requiring just a bucket of ice water, a smartphone and a social media presence, it’s easy for people to participate. It also appeals to the “selfie generation” because it gives them a chance to showcase their charitable work online.

All participants must do is film themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their own heads (or having someone else do the honor), post the videos on their social media pages (Facebook, primarily) and challenge acquaintances to either film their own icy baths, or donate to the ALS Association or another nonprofit, or both.

The fundraising effort isn’t unique, of course, but it has gained traction because “it’s simple, anyone can do it, it appeals to all ages and all demographics, and it’s fun,” says Gabrielle Martinez, managing partner and co-founder of AgencyEA, a Chicago-based event and experiential marketing firm. Add in the potential comedic factor coupled with the effort’s savvy timing in the middle of summer and “it has the components of a perfect marketing tactic,” she says.

A clear, simple hashtag for the challenge also helped drive awareness on social media, and the videos make for interesting entertainment in the social sphere, helping to expand their reach, says Matt Miller, vice president and creative director for experiential marketing at Minneapolis-based agency Periscope. “It’s a little bit out of the norm, so that makes it more fun to share with others, or for other people to then watch that content of want to pass that content on,” he says.

Plus, an experiential marketing effort can be more effective at making a cause-related message hit home for donors, Miller says. “Their understanding of it is a little more ingrained, a little deeper than if they’re just hearing a passive message or seeing a billboard. By being more involved, we tend to remember more, so you’re getting your message across in a different way that’s going to sink in.”

This article first appeared on The author, Julie Davis, is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at

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