Buying the Olympics Online

August is proving to be an exciting month for sports fans the world over. With the Athens 2004 Olympic Games well underway, all eyes are on the athletes and, consequently, on the advertising interspersed throughout media coverage of the events. The Olympics are always a magnet for big-name advertisers. This year is no exception. Olympic-themed ads are rampant.

Little wonder advertisers would want to be associated with so respected and renowned a global event. According to a recent Dynamic Logic study on the consumer effect of Olympic sponsorships, 46 percent of respondents said they view Olympic sponsors as “industry leaders.” One in four pay closer attention to ads that cite or have an association with the Olympic Games.

The opportunity to get your brand in front of millions of potential customers in one fell swoop is irresistible for many (including one resourceful fellow Canadian who chose a less costly advertising option — at least in monetary terms). This year’s games have attracted some of the top advertisers of our time, from Visa, McDonald’s, and Home Depot to General Motors. The first three are among the games’ lead sponsors, while GM is the largest advertiser of NBC’s Olympic coverage.

All have invested heavily in the event, from $40-50 million sponsorship fees to costly athlete endorsements and TV ads that debuted as early in the year as during the Super Bowl. And yet online Olympic advertising isn’t nearly as prominent as what’s created for other titanic TV events such as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards.

That’s not to say Olympic advertising doesn’t exist on the Web. It’s just not stationed at our usual haunts.

In Olympic advertising, the media trend is to patronize sites directly related to the Games. Tight-knit partnerships with the TV networks broadcasting the events and high traffic volumes on Olympic-themed sites (among other incentives) foster a desire to restrict online ad placements.

During the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan the Olympic-themed site sections developed by CBS SportsLine.com and Women.com attracted scores of advertisers. The now-defunct PointCast’s Winter Games Channel snared big-name brands for individual sponsorships of online features, including daily pictures and event results.

Prior to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, advertisers such as Adidas, General Electric, and IBM developed branded content for use on NBC’s Olympic coverage site. Initiatives created expressly for the placement included interactive games, online contests, and e-commerce pages.

In 2004, it’s much of the same. Virtually all sections of NBCOlympics.com are sponsored, while banners, skyscrapers, and rectangles pepper the site. AT&T Wireless is sponsoring the Olympic Pulse daily survey, as well as running a contest. GM’s Chevrolet is offering an Olympic-themed online contest for the occasion, developed with GM’s promotional agency, GM R*Works, and hosted and managed by interactive promotion agency ePrize. The contest is only being promoted on the Web at NBCOlympics.com.

Xerox is one advertiser that’s opted for slightly broader online coverage. Rumor has it the Olympic sponsor has bought ad placements on portals such as MSNBC.com.

True to tradition, the Olympic sites that advertisers are enamored with also prove popular with Internet users. According to Web traffic measurement firm Hitwise, traffic to such properties as Olympics.com, Sports Illustrated Olympics, and NBCOlympics.com increased by as much as 4,374 percent from August 7 to August 14.

Interestingly, Hitwise also reports top sponsors actually saw traffic to their sites decrease during this same period. Home Depot’s site traffic dropped 6.38 percent and McDonald’s site lost almost 30 percent of its average visits; traffic flow to Visa’s site was down more than 32 percent.

Does that mean these advertisers should have expanded their online presence beyond Olympic sites? That certainly could have helped boost traffic. Given most Olympic-themed promotions and contests are housed at microsites or on third-party networks, and many Olympic ads are designed for branding purposes, that likely isn’t the prime objective.

Olympic advertisers and sponsors are more than justified in their decision to spend the vast majority of their online budgets with a handful of publishers. Like the athletes who drive the Games, these players know exactly what they’re doing.

When there’s as much at stake as there is with this marketing opportunity, that’s a very good thing.

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