The Gold Medal of Questions: Is the Web TV?

I don’t know about you, but the Olympics are confusing the heck out of me, and it’s not because I’m still struggling to figure out what’s up with the brooms in the curling event.

My mind is zigzagging with media-centric question marks like a slalom skier after a triple espresso.

For example, is the official page of the NBC Olympics site a Web site or a TV channel?

Is the Web a TV channel or an on-demand video download service?

Who owns Olympic programming: the broadcast network or the consumer network?

And what on earth is the meaning of sponsorship in a world of cross-platform media synergy — the right to use the Olympic rings on TV copy or credentialed blogging rights? More to the point for my clients, what will sponsorship look like in Beijing 2008?

The New Reality

Big events catalyze fresh thinking about interactive marketing and how to interact with consumers in this age of consumer control. This can be disruptive and break new waves of innovation.

Though my last column took the Super Bowl big spenders to task for cross-platform deficiencies, the Olympics presents a fresh and welcome contrast in holistic media integration. Current Olympic coverage and promotion is creating important new rules in how content is created, distributed, valued, and marketed. Here are a few observations.

CGM Inspired Learning From the Olympics

  • The Web’s becoming TV. Though I’ve yet to see Nielsen//NetRatings, comScore, or Hitwise numbers, if Olympic Web site real estate is any indication, the Web is becoming TV. It’s not just a nice adjunct source of complementary data to traditional broadcast, but a bona fide substitute. It’s looking more like an on-demand channel, against which we can “channel-surf” desired programming elements on our terms, whenever we want it. Multimedia elements, particularly video, are everywhere, and turning them on isn’t terribly different from flipping the channel.

  • TV’s reaching to the Web. This year, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of “get more info on the Web” commentary in the televised coverage. It makes a world of sense. Every marketer should be taking active notes on how offline programming is encouraging deeper levels of online engagement, and this is happening with the Olympics well beyond NBC. Local news stations are also getting their acts together and aggressively pushing consumers to deeper online content. This is a very smart move because most of us are multitasking anyway. The likelihood that TV programming alone will satisfy long-tail topics and categories is practically zero. Attention is three-dimensional.
  • “Live” means Web, not TV. Unless you’re watching the Olympics from a bar in Torino, Italy, there’s no question television has clear limitations as a live coverage vehicle. Just ask millions of bloggers who seem to spike with bursts of spirited conversation around Olympic news hours before the official scheduled programming starts. This presents a host of challenges and opportunities for networks and sponsors alike. Increasingly, if you want it live, you get it on the Web.
  • The Olympic torch echoes. Consumer-generated media (CGM) suggests key big events and dramatic news trigger extended conversations. We see this across all the Internet’s dimensions. Don’t believe me? Check out the snowboarding buzz on message boards and forums.
  • Sponsorship opportunities bring “reality TV” elements. Coke really pushed the limits of sponsorship through a host of online initiatives, including sponsoring promotions and introducing a series of blogs entitled “Torino Conversations.” It’s not exactly groundbreaking discourse, but entries from Coke-sponsored blog authors such as Du Wei from China bring a refreshing level of informal conversation to an otherwise highly promotional Web site platform. Enabling comments takes it to an even more authentic level.
  • Consumer-generated multimedia (CGM2) has arrived… loudly. Thanks to the proliferation of camera and video phones and ever-shrinking camcorders, an entire surveillance culture has emerged around the games. This has led to a huge proliferation of digital imagery, with audio and video related to every aspect of the games being posted across the Web. What’s great about the Olympics is so much of the best CGM2 emerged before the games in the form of ordinary citizens posting video of watching various aspects of the torch relay The key takeaway for marketers, particularly for those looking to sponsor such events, is consumer expression is richer, more meaningful, and often far more viral.
  • Marketers are using real-time search optimization. There’s no question marketers have become far savvier and more efficient with timely real-time search buys against key Olympic events, personalities, and timing windows. So much for waiting until the Wheaties box rolls around. Marketers buy against the brand almost immediately. Just check out Google AdWords. AT&T is buying premium shelf on the keyword phrase “Shaun White,” encouraging consumers to “E-mail an Athlete.” NBC, leaving nothing to chance, is buying huge top-shelf position on Google in which searchers can choose from a host of relevant links, far bigger than anything we’ve seen.
  • Sponsors are borrowing from consumers’ cheat sheet. A big reason CGM monitoring is so important for marketers is because it feeds great marketing ideas. Building on the strength of the consumer podcasting explosion, the U.S. Olympic team has its own podcast section with member interviews. Most of the major news organizations covering the Olympics also have special podcast sections, and a few, including the NYTimes.com and the Associated Press, are distributing such content via the iTunes Music Store.

I’m not suggesting everything is perfect. Some consumers are complaining about ads stuffed in before videos, and much online video content is served in small, rather than long, bites. This can amount to a frustrating tease. Still, we’re witnessing an important shift in programming that has the potential to rewrite the rules of TV and of cross-platform synergy.

Meet Pete at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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