No one can have missed the Ice Bucket Challenge or #nomakeupselfie and many will have seen the most recent #WakeUpCall drive in aid of Unicef for child refugees in Syria.
They are all super simple, tend to have an element of narcissism and find a way for someone to challenge and provoke the involvement of those around them
There is no doubt these campaigns can be highly effective. The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised US $115m for ALS Association since July 29, when it started to take off. Compare this to the US $2.8m the organisation raised over a similar period last year. Cancer Research UK received an unprecedented £8m in six days at the height of the #nomakeupselfie swell, an activity that started organically rather than by the charity itself.
Yet for all the campaigns that succeed, there are many others that fail to ignite. It’s impossible to predict what will catch the social public’s imagination at any given moment but there are some common ingredients, says Nils Leonard, chief creative officer and chairman of Grey London. "They are all super simple, tend to have an element of narcissism and find a way for someone to challenge and provoke the involvement of those around them."
James Murphy, founder and chief executive of Adam & EveDDB, says one of the key factors is that they are self-perpetuating. "You do not require any marketing material that tells you what to do," he says. "A tiny fraction of people will have seen the original Ice Bucket Challenge marketing collateral. It’s simple enough to get involved and the mechanic is built into every user’s response."
Selfish vs selfless
Celebrities are an important part of the mix, able to leverage huge followings but are sometimes criticised for being self-congratulatory and vain rather than selfless and generous (e.g. Naomi Campbell in full make-up for #WakeUpCall). Murphy does not believe this harms the campaigns. "But it might harm the celebrity," he observes.
Leonard warns: "The creators and hosts of these campaigns must accept that the chance you take creating celeb-powered work is that some of the celebs will fuck it up. Or, that celebrities people don't actually like much will get hold of the idea."
Even if people mind seeing yet another selfie less than, say, being served a Facebook-supplied ad for garden sheds, it seems inevitable that executions will have to evolve or the trend is likely to wane.
Cancer Research UK is working on spotting social trends, and having people around the charity ready to get involved fast when appropriate
Risk of repetition
There is a balance of risks and benefits, Murphy feels, in that social feeds can be dominated by repetitive content but charities want people to feel they are part of a movement. "The onus is on them to create more activity, that bites harder, more quickly," he says and suggests when looking to create big moments, one tactic could be to really quickly hop onto topical memes such as Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar night selfie.
This is precisely the strategy being explored by Cancer Research UK. Natasha Hill, director of brand and strategic marketing at the charity, says it is working on spotting social trends, and having people around the charity ready to get involved fast when appropriate.
"We learnt so much from #nomakeupselfie, and we’re looking at how we can get that same swell of support in new ways," Hill says. "The beauty of it was that the public spread it. If you are looking to start your own trend, having influencers on board who have big followings always helps to get that reach to get things started."
Leonard predicts campaigns will evolve by becoming increasingly challenging, demanding more intelligent ways for people to show their support, perhaps asking people to play an Xbox game in a particular way or to protest via their viewing habits. He also thinks they will involve more agitation.
"I can see these sorts of campaigns putting a dent in the behaviours of some global brands, asking potent questions and making powerful statements in policy and government, " he says, adding: "Brands should prepare for this sort of swell to come their way."