The power of the hashtag

Social media raises awareness and raises the bar

Emy Wood

“Hi, I’m Alex and I was nominated by Nathan . . .”

Mere weeks ago, news feeds across the globe could not escape the frenzy as celebrities, friends and companies participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

“I did the Ice Bucket Challenge because it was a fun way to help spread awareness for a good cause,” said a freshman general studies major. “Social media is an easy way to share information.”

The Ice Bucket Challenge quickly became one of the most popular social-media-powered stunts, but it’s not alone. From brand names to non-profits, organizations are cooking up hashtags to serve at the social marketing table.

Some of the top campaigns of 2014 (ALS aside) include #YesAllWomen, a hashtag used more than 1.2 million times over the first four days; #NoMakeupSelfie, which raised more than 8 million pounds for cancer research; the #GlobalSelfie, for which NASA gathered more than 36,000 selfies to create a giant mosaic of the Earth; and the famous #OscarsSelfie, which was actually a pre-planned act of Samsung.

Even with a flood of platforms and challenges available, many people refrain from participating. “I think it draws more attention to myself than it does to the actual cause,” said Jean Hinrichs, a senior communication major.

Suddenly, the video meant to support a cause becomes a battle for popularity. For example, some Ice Bucket Challenge participants posted videos of themselves getting soaked and nominating their friends, but forgot to mention ALS.

However, even if the focus sometimes shifts to the participant, there’s no denying that these campaigns come with robust returns. According to the ALS Association, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised more than $113 million dollars and brought in 2.1 million new donors.

The Ice Bucket Challenge exemplifies the power—and some of the pitfalls—of viral marketing. Users now know that social media has the potential to be so much more than hours wasted in front of a screen. With just a mouse click and a few minutes of effort, you can make a positive difference.

Emy is a sophomore studying communication.