In the summer of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took over social media. Thanks to its widespread coverage beyond the Internet, even those without a Facebook profile knew about the campaign – a call to dump a bucket of icy cold water over the head while challenging peers to either do the same or make a donation to ALS. The challenge raised more than $115 million for research toward finding a cure for the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. While there are no official rankings, many would call it the most successful social media campaign to date.
The Ice Bucket Challenge is a perfect example of how social media has changed the face of a public relations campaign. “Campaigns are much more personal now,” says Jeff Sharon, a former broadcast journalist, who’s also worked as a producer and on-air anchor and currently serves as a course director at Full Sail University, “because customers and clients can interact with you personally. Information is shared at the speed of light. It’s much different than the old days – putting up a billboard and hoping somebody will drive by.”
And while it’s obvious that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a hugely successful campaign, it’s not always as cut and dry. Social media is still relatively new, and there’s still no perfect formula for gauging the success of a PR campaign.
“You can think of the success of a campaign in a qualitative or quantitative way,” says Sharon. “The qualitative data is individual remarks by individual people who are saying, ‘Hey I really like your product.’ Quantitative data is more objective: how many people viewed something? How many people liked it? So when people ask, ‘Do likes matter?’ Absolutely, because they give us a picture of success. But not the picture.”
Sandra BK, a filmmaker and entrepreneur, has launched dozens of social media campaigns to promote her own documentary film projects and entertainment companies, TREKT Himalaya and Hardcore Nepal. As a course director in Full Sail University’s Public Relations master’s degree program, she tells her students to consider a combination of the following three factors when thinking about a campaign’s success: brand awareness, engagement, and conversion.
“We can look at conversions [How many people actually bought/donated something stemming from the campaign?], but that might not be the true number for determining if the campaign was effective,” says BK. “We want to have brand awareness out there as well. And somebody who saw your brand, let’s say today, might share something from it a year from now. That’s effective, right? That’s brand awareness.”
Engagement is key too – these are the “likes” that a specific photo receives, or the amount of shares that a video may get. Engagement is important, but like brand awareness and conversion, it can’t be the only thing considered. “Sometimes “likes” and popularity can be very skewed,” says BK, who teaches Full Sail’s Public Relations program’s Social Media Metrics and ROI course, which shows students how to dig in to the data and analyze the strategy of a social media campaign. “Sometimes the people liking my photo aren’t the people that I want to convert.”
Think again about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – it’s a great example of how the campaign worked on all three levels: Millions read about ALS (brand awareness), 17 million videos of challengers dumping water over their heads were uploaded to Facebook (engagement), and the campaign raised more than $115 million dollars (conversion).
Regardless of the above factors, one thing is an absolute requirement for any campaign on social media to be a success: the brand must have a strong social media presence for a campaign to work. “Your online presence really determines the public’s sentiment about you,” says BK, “which is why you have to constantly be working to engage and monitor your audience – even beyond campaigns.”
One other tip from Sharon: Don’t try to make something go viral.
“I’m pretty sure the people who came up with the ALS campaign had no idea it would do what it did,” says Sharon. “And that’s the overarching thing: you put together a campaign, you try to make sure it’s ironclad, but at the end of the day, you just have to put it out there, monitor it, and hope that it works.”
Full Sail University’s Public Relations Master’s program teaches the skills necessary for public relations professionals to thrive in the digital age, building a solid foundation in traditional PR methods, but also becoming adept at leveraging the new media and online tools key to success in the modern world. To learn more, click here.