It’s ‘The Show…and Showing Up’ : How the ALS Icebucket Challenge has Implications for Millennial Marketers.


I remember being home from college and sitting on my parents’ couch flipping through channels on a Friday night, and stopping to watch a telethon on TV. A comedian appeared in the center of the screen and made me laugh for 10 minutes or so. Shortly after, the cameraman would cut to a bank of celebrities answering telephones and I switched the channel.

I switched for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was 19 and broke. The little money I did have was not going to a charity.  However, with the enormous wave of ice water that has been washing over my social media newsfeed in the last few weeks, I am starting to think perhaps we are looking at a shift.  I recently did a little research on the demographics of charitable-giving pre-and post social media.  I came across a number of reports (pre-social media) including one from 1996 done which found that “donations were higher among those aged 40 – 84 than among those younger or older.” A recent Gallup poll done last year showed the largest percentage of Americans who reported charitable donations came from the 50+ age demographic. That did not surprise me. What did surprise me is the percentage of charitable donations for this campaign made by the Millennial target.

The most common reference I hear about Millennials is their narcissism and entitlement. Yet, this poll among a number of others was reporting that close to 70%  of Millennials had donated to charity or spent time volunteering for charitable causes. So the question is, how has the digital age of media affected the current profile of the “Charitable Giver” and what does that mean for marketers?


The ALS Icebucket Challenge has three key elements that successfully targeted Millennials and unwittingly challenged them to break the mold of a charitable giver. How did it accomplish this?

  • Millennials bit into it.  By using social media as a forum, it happened right where they live.
  • It successfully drew on their well-known desire to curate and create their own image on social media. If they are going to ‘do good’ they want others to know about it. More than narcissism, they saw this challenge as a part of their identity they wanted others to ‘get’ about them: we’re seeing playfulness, tenacity, and a compassionate core.
  • It allowed a forum for ‘call-out credibility’. By giving the Millennials a space to publically call-out their friends in a light-hearted yet competitive context, the Icebucket Challenge had appeal and credibility. As with youth since time immemorial, reaching one the right way means reaching many.






  1. Laura W

    August 27, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Terrific blog about an important subject. Charitable donations never used to be “my thing” either until social media made it “cool” and “expected”. It’s a great idea for the social media crowd to use it in a credible, positive and productive way and to “call out” your friends and contacts. It can assist marketers in generating new business through enhancing and developing their image while increasing awareness and support.

  2. Rea

    August 27, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    I think you’re right on target with this one. It’s amazing how the campaign revolutionized charity, and managed to engage a demographic not typically associated with giving.

  3. heather Says :

    August 28, 2014 at 9:21 am

    i gave $100 and i _never_ give. also my husband did the challenge. it felt VERY similar to facebook for me. the cool kids were doing it first. (and by ‘first’ i mean the first DAY. this stuff took OFF.) so people that i knew, love, respected were doing the challenge.

    was it fun to watch? i guess. by the third or fourth day i would only watch the first few second of every video. if the nominations took too long i just moved on to the next. marketers (including charities) have GOT to figure out a way to work with new, shortened attention spans.

    the sooner companies quit complaining about the changing landscape and get on board, the sooner they will reap the same benefits. i haven’t seen this kind of donating flux without a major news catastrophe in my lifetime!

  4. Kelly

    August 28, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Great post! I, too, was struck by the ice bucket challenge in that it gave another example of the concrete outcomes that Millennials attain with their activities on social media – and it’s really a new and unique way to work towards goals, whether charitable, political, or business-related. To your first point about “where they live,” Millennials do not see a distinction between “cyberspace” and “real life” – social media and the internet are real life “Social media activism” and “awareness” are often disparaged by people with some distance from the demographic. But changing minds does lead to changing trends, policy, and financial value. This can be seen in the rapid policy change in same-sex marriage that has swept the country in large part due to the socialization of LGBTQ equality across internet-based communities. This is the platform for reaching young people – it is, indeed, where they live and socialize.

    I think your second point is really key to understanding Millennials, particularly when you say “More than narcissism, they saw this challenge as a part of their identity they wanted others to ‘get’ about them.” There is a strong tie-in to identity and identity politics when you look at millennial’s activities and sense of place in an ever-more complex and technology-centered world – they are reacting to that technology by taking ownership of it, creating a strong and clear voice, and by being very clear about who they are, so as not to be lost in the waves of information with which new tech is inundating us. So tapping into that desire is really essential if you want to connect meaningfully with the demographic.

  5. Jan Ferri-Reed Says :

    September 4, 2014 at 9:31 am

    This really resonated with me. Couldn’t agree more – thanks for posting.

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