Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Went Viral

Posted on August 27, 2014

At this point, we should all know the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. If not, visit the ALS Association’s website and stop living under a rock. The bottom line is that as of August 25, 2014, the organization has raised $80 million growing from $15M on August 18, 2014 (note the viral growth). They only raised approximately $2M in this time frame last year.

How is this possible?!

Well, there’s many contributing factors, but it boils down to 3 essential age-old sales tactics imposed within the challenge itself. Here they are dissected:

The Challenge

The fundraising phenomenon asks those willing to douse themselves to challenge others to do the same within 24 hours. If they don’t, they must make a donation to a certain charity. Each person who participates nominates more friends, who nominate more friends, who nominate still more friends – Huffington Post

1. The Alternative Close

The essence of the Alternative Close technique is to give your customers the choice between “something or something” vs. “something or nothing.”

“Dump a bucket of ice water over your head  or donate $100”

In the case of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, people have the choice to dump ice water on their head or donate cash. Being freezing cold and losing hard-earned money are 2 unattractive options. Then again, the ice water option also grants you access into the “in-crowd” – an equally attractive benefit some would consider.

These two options take the pressure off of saying yes or no (often the most stressful buying decision), and it gets them focused on the result. Other examples include:

  • Would you prefer a black leather or tan interior?
  • Would you like to take delivery on Tuesday or Friday?
  • Cash or credit?

What it means for you

Analyze your sales process. Where in it do you have options the customer could choose from assuming they’ll complete the sale? It could be in product features, delivery, payment, overall benefits, etc. When you’re ready to close, give them those options to choose from instead of waiting for them to say “yes” or “no” and see how it works.

2. Create a Sense of Urgency

“You have 24 hours.”

This has got to be the oldest trick in the book, but hey, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. In the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the 24-hour window grants you the freedom of  “choice” for 24 hours. Though, if you wait too long, you’ll be penalized by “having” to pay $100. Yes, it’s a false sense of urgency because no roided up mob-boss is going to show up and break your legs if you don’t pay. Often though, words are all you need (I’m not saying to lie to your customers – that’ll lead to long term distrust and failure).  The goal is to incentivize them to act, and a time frame accomplishes just that. Other examples include:

  • “This is a 24 hour exploding offer.” Sound familiar investment banking analysts?
  • “We only have one left in stock.”
  • “Prices are skyrocketing next month. If you act today, you can lock in the lower rate.”

What it means for you

Whether you’re trying to sell a product or gain an upper hand in a negotiation, create a sense of urgency so the other party is incentivized to act. People’s most valuable asset is their time, so that’s great to leverage if it’s appropriate and honest. In your next negotiation, try scheduling it for 4pm on a Friday. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first job contract or a multi-million dollar deal. People want to be out of the office and close things up before the weekend. Use this time restraint to gain small concessions that matter to you, don’t matter to them, and that they would have hassled over otherwise.

3. Referrals

I nominate…[3+ people]

Any person with history in sale knows that it’s hard, if not impossible, to be successful on your efforts alone. All too soon, you realize that referrals are your golden eggs. Not only do they open doors that had been previously shut, but it’s a free personal sales force. This is the key to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’s VIRAL growth.

The challenge requires you to nominate 3 or more people to complete the task as well. As long as your customers see benefit for THEMSELVES by referring one of their close contacts, they’ll do it. It could be a financial referral program or simply the gratitude the friend provides for presenting your services. In the case of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s the sick pleasure of seeing friends suffer from freezing water…what can I say, humans are interesting creatures. Here are some questions you can ask to gain referrals:

  • Do you have 2 or 3 friends who you believe would also be interested in xyz benefit?
  • Who else is struggling with xyz problem that you know?

What it means for you

Asking and/or incentivizing your customers to refer you to others doesn’t take more than a few seconds, but it can be a million dollar difference. If you truly believe in your product and/or that your cause has value, then it is in the best interest of everyone to know about it, and people will be glad to spread word.


The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a new application of old sales principles. I’m personally very happy that it’s gaining such huge success because it is for a great cause: to create awareness for Lou Gehrig’s Disease. We can learn from their example and apply these sales techniques to positively impact more lives with our new businesses. If you’re interested in more basic sales strategy, the book The Psychology of Selling is a great place to start.

What other techniques do you see being used in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?