What could possibly prompt Justin Timberlake, Aaron Rodgers, and Chris Christie to dump a bucket of ice on their heads? The #icebucketchallenge, a new viral social media-based fundraising campaign building awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. At first glance this campaign may look silly, but this summer, the ice bucket challenge has gone viral from its roots in Boston to spots across the globe. The campaign aims to raise awareness for ALS (often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord, leading to paralysis. Notable figures who have suffered from ALS include Stephen Hawking, Mao Zedong, and Charles Mingus. There’s no cure and no known cause. But thanks to the viral campaign, donations are up 1000% percent as compared with the year prior and over $15 million has been donated.

The challenge started with Pete Frayes, who played baseball at Boston College and was diagnosed with the illness. It has since gone on to attract the attention of thousands of people including celebrities and politicians. Even Ethel Kennedy participated in the challenge challenging President Obama. Obama declined, but did his part by donating, which is what nominees are supposed to do if they don’t throw a bucket of ice water over their heads. The celebrity nature of the campaign has recently continued with Lebron James, DJ Tiesto, and even Lady Gaga, Oprah, and Justin Bieber getting in on the good-naturedness of the challenge.

At the core of the #icebucketchallenge’s mission is the role social media plays in raising healthcare awareness and funds for positive causes. The challenge isn’t the first social craze or fad that’s provided a significant impact to a good cause. But is social media an effective campaign mechanism? Is true awareness really garnered from these efforts or are these dead-end challenges?

The verdict is still out.

As discussed in this 2013 study that examines the role of Twitter in Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM),

Though the inherent value in social media is its social nature and the opportunity for dialog and two-way communication, it appears that Twitter is being used during BCAM as primarily one-way communication. The average number of tweets was less than two, meaning there are not on-going conversations between users, particularly organizations, and their followers.

Another paper, “Adoption and Use of Social Media Among Public Health Departments,” concludes that social media campaigns aren’t being used, in most cases, to the advantage of the public agencies as well as the people they serve:

Social media use by public health agencies is in the early adoption stage. However, the reach of social media is limited. SHDs are using social media as a channel to distribute information rather than capitalizing on the interactivity available to create conversations and engage with the audience. If public health agencies are to effectively use social media then they must develop a strategic communication plan that incorporates best practices for expanding reach and fostering interactivity and engagement.

Although the campaigns may not have the lasting engagement their initiators may have hoped, social media is still a majorly important tool in any public health campaign’s arsenal, as cited in this study that uses Twitter metrics to evaluate social media’s ability to develop engaged public health audiences. While the ability to make a “cool” video for Facebook, for a good cause, may seem like a fad, there are critical engagement features of such campaigns.

Lastly, there is one final way in which social media is impacting the healthcare world, and that is through the tracking of illnesses. Social media, and twitter in particular, is making it possible to change epidemiology and follow the spread of disease in real time. It’s making it possible to remind people to take medication or send a morning tweet alerting people of common daily medical needs. The ALS challenge is just one small example of how social media and trends can provide tremendous good for the healthcare world. And since the medical world is considered a “late adopter” of many technological trends, the increased use of social media will only make positive stories like this all the more common.

To donate and support ALS research and awareness, click here.

And here’s a slideshow of some of the most viral healthcare campaigns to hit social media:

Further Reading:

Image credit: Didriks via flickr

About The Author

Mark Wien

Mark Wien is the co-founder of the Micro Equity Development Fund, a for-profit, social initiative focused on connecting investors with investment opportunities in microfinance, particularly micro-equity. Mark also co-founded an e-commerce site which launched in March 2014. After six years in finance, Mark is currently in medical school with hopes of bridging his business background with medicine to improve access to and quality of healthcare worldwide. He will be joining Hippo as a frequent correspondent exploring the topics of public health, the intersection of medicine and business, healthcare, and microfinance. Twitter: @MarkWien; Mark.Wien@themedf.com.