Digital MarketingStrategiesThe Digital Olympics

The Digital Olympics

The dominance of social media and the overall rise of digital means everyone associated with the Olympics has had to get serious about digital.

We’re getting ready to head into the three-week sports maelstrom known as the Summer Olympics, and as always, the world is watching. As someone who has worked on projects for the Olympics and pitched to the IOC, let me tell you that the Olympics are not the most progressive organization. The Games are over 100 years old and sometimes it shows. Of course, when you have just about every country in the world to keep happy and every journalist looking for scandals it doesn’t breed taking a lot of chances. Olympic sponsors have been similarly traditional in their efforts, primarily doing the same activities around their Games sponsorships that they’ve been doing since most of us can remember – lots of TV ads, in-store giveaways, heavy point-of-purchase branding, and stunts designed to get us involved and paying attention.

But this year we’ve turned a huge corner. The dominance of social media and the overall rise of digital means everyone associated with the Olympics has had to get serious about digital. And while some of the interesting work will surely be rolled out during the Games themselves, there are some key trends that have already made themselves apparent and are important bellwethers for marketers.

TV coverage of the Olympics is great, but it’s highly limited and doesn’t do much for long-tail content. If you are a fan of, for instance, sailing or men’s field hockey, the chance of Bob Costas showing your sport on the nightly broadcast is pretty much zero. With IP-based broadcast, you can spend three hours watching every second of that sailing race or low-interest basketball game – sometimes just shot without any commentator discussion on air. For the short-tail, on-demand content it is equally compelling, as we saw when Usain Bolt’s and Michael Phelps’ achievements were watched millions and millions of times.

But from a marketer standpoint it left something to be desired. While we were given lots of opportunities to innovate around the user experience of the player, our attempts to create new ad models were unsuccessful.

Why? Olympic sponsorship is a closed, tight group – there are only 11 official worldwide sponsors this year. That meant the sponsors on the player were limited to that select group. It’s also incredibly expensive to sponsor, and streaming video at the Olympics was a new and unproven idea. As a result, the advertising was often thrown in as a value-add, a common practice. So without additional dollars flowing in or efficacy numbers, the sponsors just used plain-vanilla pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll video, reusing their existing TV :15 and :30 spots.

Changing Viewing Patterns

What a difference four years makes. EMarketer suggests a significant number of the 4 billion expected Olympics viewers will be using non-traditional TV platforms.


In the U.S., the primary platform is NBC’s Live Extra platform. Like HBO GO and many similar apps, it’s an entitled service; you have to log in with your TV provider’s (cable, satellite, etc.) credentials to get full access. (By the way, it feels like NBC is integrating with Comcast here to make the entitlement work – very nice to see!) It promises to be pretty cool; full event replays, streaming live content – very much what we saw in Beijing. The big upgrade? Access anywhere through the Android and iOS tablet and phone apps. Expect to walk into more people on the street for 17 days as heads are down watching the diving.

The BBC is offering a similar service on the desktop with every event live and on-demand. The mobile offering is significantly less robust as it focuses almost exclusively on text-based content and updates.

So how are marketers activating on these new platforms? Well at the moment, the NBC app is using boring old pre-roll with a persistent sponsor (Citi), but it’s assumed that this will change to feature all of the global sponsors during the course of the games. And while I’d like to see NBC roll out more interesting ad models on the app, my hopes aren’t high. These Olympics have the potential to change viewing habits for events. Given the increase in broadband penetration and consumer fluency with video, our models suggest we’ll see 1 to 1.5 million hours of video watched per day during the games. Until the advertising model around the viewing experience evolves beyond pre-roll and companion banners, however, the content is not going to fully take advantage of the addressability, measurement, interactivity, and platform agnosticism of digital media.

Thankfully some of the digital campaigns occurring across other media are showing significantly more innovation. The mandate for sponsors is an attempt to capture a more youthful audience. While the IP-media will skew much younger, the average age of Olympics TV viewers is 45 (according to Coca-Cola). Most notably:


The “Thank You Mom” campaign has it all; strong pull on the heartstrings, the concept of kid athletes becoming Olympians, and of course, Mom. The TV ads are beautiful and the Facebook integration is very strong. P&G is learning the important lesson that content creates engagement on Facebook – not advertising. You can see the difference between the engagement on brand-focused posts for Pampers and Pantene (low) and posts about the athletes and their moms with product relationship (high).


Coke has put together “Move to the Beat,” a music-based campaign centered around a specially created Mark Ronson song that uses athletes’ training noises as the beat. In addition to the YouTube channel, there’s a companion Facebook app – when I logged in it analyzed my social activity and decided “You like Volleyball and R&B.” No, but the resulting mashup of my Facebook photos and images from the video were fairly compelling and more than 3 million of these videos have been posted. Coke is also taking the fun on-site at the Games. Its Olympics pavilion features a large-scale art installation called the “Coca-Cola Beatbox” that lets visitors create, capture, and share sounds they make by tapping on the physical structure.

Holiday Inn

A local (vs. global) Olympics sponsor, Holiday Inn has made a great splash using technology to bring the Games to life inside its Holiday Inn London Kensington Forum location. For the last several months, hotel guests and visitors can use their smartphones and tablets to see Olympians plying their trade in various places in the hotel. This includes a BMX rider doing tricks in the lobby, a ping-pong player delivering a serve right at the user, and even a windsurfer using a bed sheet in your room to “practice.”

Digital has also become the primary channel for marketers who may not be official Olympic sponsors but still want to get into the game. This is a tricky business; you won’t see the rings or any mention of the Olympics on these properties, but they are looking to smartly benefit from the halo.


Subway is particularly well-positioned in this area. Since the brand already focuses on athletes (and especially Olympians) in its marketing, there are strong existing sports-themed associations. You won’t see pitchman Michael Phelps during the Games; he’s precluded from marketing for a non-Olympic sponsor. Winter Olympian Apolo Ohno is all over the Subway Facebook page, however, with a focus on training and training routines.


Nike is trying to compete with rival Adidas, which is another local sponsor, but isn’t getting left out in the cold. Its site and Facebook page is pushing the tagline “Game On, World,” a strong and not subtle message. Amazingly Adidas has only subtle Olympic sponsorship on its Facebook page and nothing on its non-U.K. sites. Nike has been more effective in associating itself with training and competition. In particular, the Nike FuelBand and its gamification of working out has given the brand the authenticity to play in the Olympic space, however illicitly.

The one area where all marketers are keeping quiet is their on-site campaigns, preparing to unveil with the maximum punch at or around the opening ceremony. I’m hopeful that we’ll see some smart use of digital technology, but for geo-fencing and NFC – we’ll probably have to wait one more Olympics.

Look for London 2012 to be the most disruptive Olympics yet, and have your score cards out to see how marketers react to an audience that is moving away from just the TV. Lots of pundits have been calling 2012 the first “Social Olympics,” first “App Olympics,” first “Mobile Olympics,” first “Twitter Olympics,” and lots of other channels, but that misses the point. It’s all digital, and if you miss the 360-degree brand immersion to focus on just one area, it will be at your own peril.

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