What Charities Need to Learn From #icebucketchallenge

When I first saw the whole #icebucketchallenge thing (seems months ago now…), my first reaction was “Great piece of marketing by a relatively small charity”.

Except that it wasn’t someone working for either charity – either the ALS Association in the US or the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK – who thought it up. Turns out that it was a golfer, Chris Kennedy, who first chucked a bucket of cold water over his head to raise money for ALS on 15th July. His cousin Jeanette’s husband was a sufferer. The idea was picked up by another sufferer, Pete Frates, a former baseball player at Boston College who posted about it on Twitter, and well, you pretty much know the rest.

Basically, the ALS Association and the Motor Neurone Disease Association just got lucky. Two fairly small charities got a massive donations boost and an even bigger awareness boost.

But then one of the big boys started to muscle in on the ice bucket action. Having been used to seeing a constant stream of ice bucket challenges in my Facebook feed all featuring about-to-be-cold-and-wet people dutifully telling people to donate to the cause, I started to see some telling people to donate to a completely different cause. There were a few different causes, but by far the most common was Macmillan Cancer Support.

How did Macmillan do this? Well, Macmillan is a huge charity with a lot of followers and dedicated fundraisers. They score highly for awareness because of a series of high profile campaigns in television and other media, and because everyone knows someone affected by cancer. So, without really trying, some people would have ended up doing the Ice Bucket Challenge and donating to Macmillan rather than the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

However, they also used Google AdWords very effectively.

Here’s a search I just ran for “#icebucketchallenge”:


Those two top search results are Google AdWords adverts. Paid ads. And Macmillan got the top one, ahead of the MND Association. Nobody else was able to get their ad on the first page, although if you click through to the second page, you’ll see those two ads plus an ad for something called “The World Ape Fund” in third place.

What you may not know is that Google gives charities a lot of AdWords advertising completely free of charge. Subject to eligibility requirements, your English or Welsh registered charity can get $120,000 of free advertising a year. And this applies to small charities just as much as big ones. For a small charity, that can easily provide the majority of web traffic.

So how did Macmillan get above the MND Association in those search pages? And for that matter, how come the World Ape Fund only got onto page 2?

Let’s deal with The World Ape Fund first. It’s a very small organisation (one director). It’s a very new organisation (it was incorporated in September of 2013). It’s not well-known (80 likes on Facebook). And the website that the ad links to has nothing whatsoever to do with the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s likely to get a low Quality Score for the keyword “#icebucketchallenge” because Google (correctly as it happens) determines that the page isn’t what people are looking for.

By contrast, both the Macmillan and MNDA ads direct you to pages that are all about the challenge, with videos of people doing it and details of how to donate. Both will score highly for relevancy. Most importantly, people who search for “#icebucketchallenge” will probably click on one or both ads – so the all-important clickthrough rate will be high (unlike the page from our simian friends).

So why does Macmillan always seem to come first, ahead of the Motor Neurone Disease Association?

Well, I’m going to make an educated guess here. One of the restrictions of Google’s Ad Grants programme for charities is that the most a charity can ‘bid’ for a click is $2. It’s a fictional $2 since the charity doesn’t actually have to pay it, but this stops charities from competing too hard against paying advertisers. Charities are still allowed to pay for AdWords in the usual way if they want to. Could be, that is what is giving Macmillan the edge.

It may make financial sense for Macmillan to spend some money (even at $3 a click) so that they come out on top of the search results. After all, the donation for the Ice Bucket Challenge is usually at least £10. If you were Macmillan’s marketing director, deciding where to spend your money, doesn’t that sound like a good way to invest? Probably a relatively small amount, compared to, say a television ad campaign.

In the US, the ALS Association didn’t like other charities getting a piece of ‘their’ action, so despite the fact that they didn’t invent it, they announced that they were trying to trademark ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. Bad move. This caused a social media storm of overwhelmingly negative publicity and they backed away from the idea. (Think “all publicity is good publicity”? Not if you’re a charity.)

So, to return to the title of this article, what is it that charities need to learn from the Ice Bucket Challenge?

  1. Look after your volunteers, fundraisers and donors.
    The next great viral fundraising activity to follow #icebucketchallenge and #nomakeupselfie will almost certainly be started by someone who isn’t a paid employee of any charity. There are many more volunteers, fundraisers and donors out there than paid staff. You’d like that person to be someone who thinks of your charity as his or her charity.
  2. If you’re eligible, make use of Google’s generosity and get a Google Ad Grant. (we could help you make the best of it…) It’s free advertising – $120,000 is a LOT of free advertising when it’s used in a structured, targeted way.
  3. Never expect to ‘own’ or even ‘control’ a social media campaign. Once it’s out there and viral, just ride it and hope. Just because your charity was the first to benefit from someone’s silly idea, don’t expect that your charity will always be the only one to benefit.
  4. Move fast. Any charity could have done what Macmillan did and jumped on the bandwagon. Macmillan did, and raised £3million from #icebucketchallenge. Others didn’t. Social media crazes like this are over very quickly. #icebucketchallenge peaked on the 22nd August. If it takes your charity several days to get a new webpage added to the website, and a new AdWords ad written, you’re too slow.
Categorized as Blog

By Mark Poles

Chartered Accountant, Google Qualified Advertising Professional, Google Analytics Qualified Individual, creator of "You're Hired!".