What Makes Altruism Go Viral?

What makes an altruism campaign go viral? One research argues it's SMART.

A group of young women participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Photo: Saklakova / Shutterstock, Inc.

Viral altruism refers to a “new breed of wildly successful online charity campaigns,” best personified by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014. That campaign raised $115 million, but when attempted the next year brought in less than 1 percent of that total. The ephemeral nature of viral anything, which catches on like wildfire and then vanishes, is at the root of the problem. While a viral campaign can bring in a lot of funds in a short amount of time, they tend not to actually bring in long-term engagement.

And long-term engagement is what most nonprofits are looking for. All the money raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge will help, but finding a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease is a long-term project that needs constant engagement by dedicated donors. Viral campaigns aren’t going to solve the world’s problems, though they can certainly help to raise awareness.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who came of age on the Internet where, especially since the early days of YouTube, we’ve seen viral “hits” come and go with alarming speed. Marketers have tried over and over to catch this fire and make something go viral, but they’ve generally failed. It’s impossible to know what will or won’t go viral, and trying to engineer something to do so is an exercise in futility.

Still, Dr. Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge has been investigating what made the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge such a success, and to get a better understanding on how viral altruism works. His conclusion is that viral campaigns work when the creators take the SMART approach—social influences, moral imperatives, affective reactions, and translational impact.

Most often missing from viral campaigns, he finds, “is ‘translational impact’: the conversion of online token support, or ‘clicktivism’, into real-world contributions, whether financial donations or a long-term commitment to an issue.

One of the most successful long-term campaigns van der Linden saw was “No-Shave Movember,” the month-long growing of a mustache to raise awareness of issues related to men’s health such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and men’s suicide. Movember didn’t experience the virality of the Ice Bucket Challenge, but it did spur more long-term growth. It went from 30 to almost 5 million members in 11 years. By 2014, the Movember Foundation reported that 75 percent of participants were more aware of health issues facing men.

“Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact,” van der Linden said.

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