Large cascades can develop in online social networks as people share information with one another. Though simple reshare cascades have been studied extensively, the full range of cascading behaviors on social media is much more diverse. Here we study how diffusion protocols, or the social exchanges that enable information transmission, affect cascade growth, analogous to the way communication protocols define how information is transmitted from one point to another. Studying 98 of the largest information cascades on Facebook, we find a wide range of diffusion protocols – from cascading reshares of images, which use a simple protocol of tapping a single button for propagation, to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, whose diffusion protocol involved individuals creating and posting a video, and then nominating specific others to do the same. We find recurring classes of diffusion protocols, and identify two key counterbalancing factors in the construction of these protocols, with implications for a cascade’s growth: the effort required to participate in the cascade, and the social cost of staying on the sidelines. Protocols requiring greater individual effort slow down a cascade’s propagation, while those imposing a greater social cost of not participating increase the cascade’s adoption likelihood. The predictability of transmission also varies with protocol. But regardless of mechanism, the cascades in our analysis all have a similar reproduction number (≈1.8), meaning that lower rates of exposure can be offset with higher per-exposure rates of adoption. Last, we show how a cascade’s structure can not only differentiate these protocols, but also be modeled through branching processes. Together, these findings provide a framework for understanding how a wide variety of information cascades can achieve substantial adoption across a network.