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Social media and the Sochi Olympics - Part one

by Christian Waldheim , 07.02.2014

Ambush marketing is giving Olympic Partners a run for their money, thanks to social media.

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is the first to have an emblem that includes a web address.  And, back in November, the Games organizers were reportedly thinking of banning the press from reporting on the Olympics via social media. Those two facts give a clear indication of two things: the first is that the Games organisers recognise the importance that online plays in marketing this world event, and the second is that they also recognise how potent and uncontrollable social media can be.

The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi has brought in a record half a trillion dollars from contracts with sponsors, suppliers and licensees. These organizations have paid big money for ‘exclusive’ rights to be associated with the Games and promote themselves at this major world event. So what must they be thinking of the reports on a leading world sports website that a significant number of the top 20 brands that people associate with the Sochi Games are non-Olympic partners? It appears that these brands have managed to ‘ambush’ the publicity surrounding the Games, to benefit from the public focus on this event, but without paying the large sums required to be an official partner.

How have non-partner brands managed to hijack the Olympics party?

Hijacking the marketing around a major event has never been easier. In the past, marketers had nothing but traditional channels to use and this made policing and protecting exclusive sponsorship deals relatively easy. Today, social media platforms offer a far greater range of opportunities for brands to sneak into the conversation around a major event – witness Oreo’s superb manoeuvre during the Super Bowl black-out last year. Social media also presents a much more difficult terrain for event organisers to police. After all, no one can stop a sports fan blogging about the non-Omega watch that his favourite athlete generally wears while training for the Olympics, or posting photos of it on his Facebook page. And non-partner brands can bring themselves virtually ‘inside’ the Games, by timing tweets and email promotions around the most popular competitions – so that consumers receive them on their second screen, whilst watching the Games live on TV.

Social media plays to the sponsors as well as the hijackers

Social media, then, is a powerful channel for amplifying the communication of both official and un-official brands around a particular event. But it is also a valuable tool for measuring the benefits of a brand’s sponsorship investment – especially as a key part of the ‘pay off’ for sponsorship is very illusive.

The Olympic partners themselves argue that the main benefit of the sponsorship for them is to their brand image, rather than a commercial benefit. And where can you go to track and analyse consumers’ perception of your brand in real-time? Social media.

The challenges

While social media channels provide brands with a golden opportunity to look into consumers’ unprompted awareness and perception of themselves and their competitors, there are challenges in how to process the information accurately.

The easer way to shift through the vast amount of content on social media sites is to use automated search systems. But it’s not just the number of mentions that brands need to track, as this can easily produce data overload; they also need to know the precise sentiment (which several monitors offer). But, more than that, they need to understand the context of the post, in order to focus in on the content that really matters. Was the context positive or negative; and did it reflect on any of the competitive positioning elements that the brand is spending huge amounts of money promoting? No automated system can hope to be accurate in identifying all of this, given the prevalence of sarcasm, humour, irony and slang that people use online.

At GfK, we are monitoring the online conversations around sponsorship of the Olympics in another way. We have set up several specific scorecards to tag and evaluate social media conversations not only by sentiment, but also by relevance to the brand’s indicators and by context as well. And, in order to accurately capture all of that humour, sarcasm, irony and slang – as well as the relevant point of view of the post - we are using humans to do the coding in a crowdsourcing approach, giving us a much deeper understanding of the conversations going on.

In part 2 of this blog, we’ll be sharing what we’ve found out from our ongoing Olympics monitoring, looking at areas such as comparing performance of general Games sponsorship versus sponsorship of the athlete or ad campaigns.

You can read more about our Social Media Intelligence here