7 Lessons Pharma Can Learn From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Let’s get this out of the way: We may never see anything like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) again in our lifetimes. The Internet meme took the country by storm as more than three million people donated money to the ALS Association as part of the challenge. That doesn’t even include all of the people who simply chose to dump ice water on their heads in lieu of giving a donation. In the end, the ALS Association raised more than $100 million dollars after only receiving $2.8 million during the same time period last year. This is simply one of the most effective online campaigns we may ever see. So as Doug Weinbrenner, Senior Director, Social Media at Intouch Solutions says, “Let’s put that into the history books.”

But that doesn’t mean pharma and medical device marketers should shrug this off as a once in a lifetime event. In fact, they should be doing the exact opposite.

“Not only should pharma consider something like the Ice Bucket Challenge, we must become more engaged with these types of social media movements,” according to Chris Duffey and George Lewis, Group Creative Directors, SVPs at Sudler & Hennessey. “The #ALSIceBucketChallenge is a bona fide viral phenomenon and will go down as a case study for the power of social media.”

And for those worried about the regulatory concerns that pharma would have to deal with in order to become involved or even start a similar campaign you can stop. The FDA’s guidance on character-limited channels, such as Twitter, was focused on branded promotion. So as long as marketers remain unbranded, “They can play with the same toys all the other kids are playing with,” according to Weinbrenner. And that doesn’t even completely rule out branded promotion, it just makes things a little more complicated, which is par for the course for pharma marketers.

So pharma marketers can feel safe to explore the world of Internet memes and movement marketing. Even better, the IBC has already provided marketers with a great roadmap for how to create a successful meme—just don’t expect it to be as successful. However, following these seven tips will get your meme off on the right foot.

1. Cast A Wider Net

One of the things that made the IBC so successful was that it wasn’t just limited to people who had ALS or even people who knew anything about ALS—it was open to everyone.

“That’s what pharma needs to do: Bring the general population into their world,” Weinbrenner explains. “That means taking your marketing beyond your targeted populations and introducing the general population to the patient’s world.”

For instance, take the #showmeyourpump meme. After Miss Idaho 2014 Sierra Sanderson wore her insulin pump with her bathing suit during the Miss Idaho pageant, others were inspired to take a picture of themselves with their insulin pumps and share it for the whole world to see. Or the “Escape The Stall” campaign, which wasn’t an Internet meme but a series of ads that displayed a bathroom stall with different sets of legs (including everyone from Santa to a ballerina) to show how anyone can be affected by inflammatory bowel disease.

“Everybody can identify with having to use the toilet, right?” Weinbrenner offers. “The people behind the campaign tapped into a shared commonality to show what it’s like to live with that disease. They made it so the general public can walk a mile in the patients’ shoes—that’s great marketing.”

Weinbrenner suggests crafting similar campaigns by asking questions like: What is it like to live with a disease, such as psoriasis? And how can we get the larger population to empathize with the experience, while inviting them to participate in something that could even be fun? For example, when it comes to psoriasis, you could encourage people to cover their body up all day long.

“By broadening your thinking, you’re reaching out to possible future patients, or people who will support your advocacy partners,” Weinbrenner adds. “Now, to some that may sound sloppy and untargeted. Well, you know what? Would the Ice Bucket Challenge have been so successful if it was limited to the people in the ALS Association’s database?”

The other advantage of these types of campaigns is that it can put a new twist on a disease state.

“The #showmeyourpump meme allowed people to experience something both visually and emotionally,” Weinbrenner explains. “We’re supposed to hold up Miss Americas to this ridiculous physical standard, but this image really tilted a norm. It really tilted an always-have-done-it-the-same-way mindset, and I think that is one thing that pharma can do as well.”

2. Amplify Your Brand Awareness

If a patient, HCP or association does something similar to the IBC, pharma must get involved and show their support.

“This not only shows you are an active participant in the community,” says Mike Smith, Senior Digital Strategist at Palio+Ignite, “but will also give your brand some exposure within the community in a nonbranded/promotional way (i.e., being human and not being seen as a big bad pharma corporate entity that is always selling).”

The other advantage: Amplified brand awareness.

“If one person with 400 friends likes your video you just potentially obtained 400 eyeballs on your brand,” Smith explains. “Social media sharing is a true amplifier for brands when executing or participating in campaigns like this.”

However, if you want to start your own Internet meme, Smith offers this advice:

Make it personal (the cause must align with your brand). The goal of the ALS ICB was personal, clear and simple: Go online and donate and/or pour a bucket of ice water over your head.

Helping, not selling. Be transparent and authentic

Reputation matters. Make it a long-term commitment, otherwise consumers will see it as a cynical, short-term way of increasing sales. Businesses can also protect their brand and take advantage of the spotlight with a proactive public relations strategy and a well-defined communications plan that precedes launching any marketing campaign.

Make it fun and simple. Today’s consumers like simplicity and direct messaging. They won’t take the time to read through an entire article, newsletter or web page to understand a message.

Make them feel good. The Ice Bucket Challenge gave a sense of unity—people were all sharing positive feelings and a goal with the rich and famous. There was a sense of urgency to participate once you were called out and included a multiplier effect, given you had to nominate three additional people.

3. Catalyze The Community

“The best memes happen organically,” explains Jim Lefevere, Director, Global Digital Marketing at Roche Diagnostics, Diabetes Care. “Pharma companies can get involved but the best way to do that is to get involved in causes that are created by others, which in this case, would be the patient community.

Lefevere points to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, for the recipe for success. For starters you need a critical mass of people. Then you have to create something that can hit an emotional note while packaging the information in an irresistible way.

“My recommendation is to find the people who are passionate leaders in their patient community and catalyze them to create something,” Lefevere offers. “That is the most authentic way to participate for industry and it also serves the community in the long-term so it becomes a win-win.”

4. Generate Original Ideas

Elizabeth Elfenbein, Partner at The CementBloc, believes that online movements can be a real opportunity to ignite a group of people to take action, whether that’s raising money for MS, joining a community of people living with a disease or educating others about the prevalence of a disease.

“That said, originality is critical,” Elfenbein explains. “I looked up the top 100 online memes, and they’re very broad and topical based on current cultural trends. In order for an idea to become a meme and go viral, it needs to strike a number of chords and at the same time tap into an issue or cultural happening before it bubbles up to the surface.”

Memes are also not likely to become successful a second time around.

“It can work once and be real and honest,” Elfenbein adds, “but if you try and do it multiple times it will be intrusive and seem like it’s trying too hard—it will lack authenticity.”

Elfenbein suggests you can avoid this by trying to convey hard-to-discuss topics in a surprising and disarming way so they become relevant and drive passive people to take some sort of action. Other options include using humor to turn an unbearable situation bearable, or getting a celebrity endorsement to kick off your meme or help it take hold.

Some health-related suggestions from Elfenbein include asking people with diabetes to take on the #sugarphenomenon or #sugarwalks. “It’s got to be big yet, at the same time, relevant,” she explains. But this is a great disease state to target, according to Elfenbein, since diabetes is the fastest-growing disease and has a passive audience whose entrenched behaviors are passed along generationally.

“The meme has to drive a certain behavior,” Elfenbein adds. “Whether it’s pouring a bucket of ice over your head or taking a picture with your insulin pump, it needs to get people to do something. A hashtag alone is just a hashtag. A strong call to action that influences people to share and spread the word is quite another thing.”

5. Humanize The Industry

The pharma industry does not have the best reputation among people outside of the industry, but Internet memes could be one way to change that.

“These Internet memes are stemming from the desire to give back without asking for a self-serving sale in return,” says Joan Wildermuth, EVP, Global Creative Director at JUICE Pharma Worldwide. “Pharma invests in many causes: Battling river blindness, creating more eco-friendly buildings, mobilizing against malaria. Why not bring similar investments to the social sphere?”

Wildermuth adds that anything pharma does—whether it is from a corporate, franchise or brand perspective—must be fully transparent with a pure motivation to give back. “People will see through anything less altruistic and the effort will backfire,” she explains.

Her suggestion is to sponsor a meme that’s already gaining momentum, similar to what Wells Fargo did with #HashtagLunchbox, a grassroots campaign started by five friends in 2012. Or she says that pharma could use this as an opportunity to directly face questions and criticisms that the public has about them. They could use a hashtag like #StumpThePharmaCEO and for every unsatisfactorily issue addressed, money or time would be donated to a particular cause. Another possibility: #EnjoySweetRevenge, in which people are encouraged to capture themselves crushing, smashing or somehow conquering their favorite sweet in support of people with diabetes.

“These types of interactions could be the perfect approach to humanize pharma and change the perception,” Wildermuth adds. “It’s exciting to think of pharma taking an active role in the social conversation.”

6. Solve A Patient Population’s Problem

One thing pharma must avoid is coming off like they are trying too hard.

“The moment marketers start to focus on something ‘going viral’ is the moment that campaign will go awry,” explains Chris Iafolla, Digital Practice Leader of Chandler Chicco Companies. “The Ice Bucket Challenge became popular for a number of reasons: The call-to-action was simple, the cause was altruistic and there was a compelling narrative tied to the challenge. Put another way: Nobody set off to start a movement. This wasn’t something cooked up by an agency in some creative brainstorm session to ‘achieve metrics.’ ”

That is why Iafolla encourages pharma to consider the challenges of the patient population they are targeting and create meaningful content that helps to solve that challenge.

“The important thing is not the hashtag itself, but the message and content being shared,” Iafolla explains. “Is it a message of hope to an underserved population? It is a tool that helps people manage their condition in a new way? Does the effort shine a light on a little-known condition? These are the types of issues that drive the success or failure of a social movement effort.”

Iafolla adds that while social movement efforts are most successful when they are not overtly promotional for a brand, it is still possible to incorporate branded engagement.

“One approach companies could consider is to elevate the conversation above brand but drive to a branded asset as part of the content strategy,” he explains. “For example, the messages that are shared or promoted could be disease-awareness focused, but the content people are driven to could have a light branded component—of course with appropriate fair balance.”

7. Create Your Own Social Media Rules

The IBC was a hit for many reasons, but Duffey and Lewis think it is important to remember one of the less publicized reasons behind its success. As a Fast Company article explained, the introduction of autoplay videos on Facebook played a major role in the success of the challenge going viral as the videos would pop up and start without any prompting.

That is why it is so important for marketers to stay current as social media continues to evolve, despite the reluctance from companies to engage in these channels.

“Frankly, in this day and age we are not doing our jobs as communicators if we aren’t finding ways to employ social media,” Duffey and Lewis explain. “We need to keep reminding ourselves that social media is not just for publishing content. It is also a tool for listening—an opportunity to hear from our audience. But the most important lesson is not to follow what has been done before. It is for us to write the new rules of social engagement. That’s our challenge.”


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