How the Summer Olympics Won and Lost on Social Media

How the Summer Olympics Won and Lost on Social Media_What Can Be Learned

Forget the Super Bowl: the Summer Olympics are the world’s largest marketing event. The London 2012 Olympics generated $1.3 billion in advertising spending. The potential to amplify a company’s message is huge with an audience spanning across borders and demographics. For an Olympics marketer, the ability to capitalize on the 1-plus billion voices conversing on social platforms about the Olympics is a must.

Not everything about the Rio 2016 Olympics was a social media success. Savvy content professionals can learn quite a bit about audience engagement from the Olympics’ social wins and losses.

Winning the Social Games

lifeguard meme
This popular meme circulated shortly after swimming heats began during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

1) Meme-volution. One of the best qualities of the Olympics is its ability to create cultural phenomenons thanks to stand out performances. Think gymnast Nadia Comenaci’s perfect 10 or former world record holder sprinter Michael Johnson.

Fast forward to the modern age. Now conversation trends involve more than a stunning Olympic performance. The winter Sochi games created the memorable #sochiproblems. Rio 2016 inspired a collection of viral memes. Michael Phelps’ death stare, Usain Bolt’s cheeky smile, the bored lifeguard in the background of Olympics swimming: the audience took these snapshots and were able to interact with the event by making them relatable to their lives. That’s the value of memes: to capture something humorous or ironic that speaks to a greater audience.

2) Social Platform for Justice. The most powerful use of social media is to inspire thoughtful conversation on important social issues and become an engine for change. Very early in this Olympic cycle, conversation erupted around sexism in sports using hashtags like #everydaysexism and #mansplaining. The social community was enraged by the Chicago Tribune’s article of Olympic shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein that focused on her husband’s football career, the broadcaster declaring a husband “the person responsible for her performance” after a Hungarian swimmer’s gold medal, and announcers calling Katie Ledecky “the male Michael Phelps.”

Lists tracking sexist coverage appeared across news feeds. The story drew national attention to how society and the media addresses the performance of athletic women. Reporters and news outlets issued apologies and ran corrections. Some news outlets continued to slip-up, but by the end of Olympics coverage there were fewer gaffes, showing social’s power to influence the greater conversation.

3) Rio 2016 organizers partnering with social. The International Olympics Committee recognized the power of social media to share the stories of the Olympics Games. It recent years, it created outlets on platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Perhaps the best indicator of the IOC jumping on the social bandwagon would be its new partnerships. Twitter launched hundreds of Olympic-specific emojis and projected live tweets on Rio’s Arcos da Lapa aqueduct. Airbnb became the first “alternative accommodations” official sponsor of the Rio Olympics. The company took advantage of the unique partnership with a #StayWithMe campaign and with special call-to-actions on reservation pages. NBC brought in a dozen Buzzfeed staffers to create viral social content like the women’s wrestling team smashing watermelons and the Snapchat story “8 Problems Tall People Have” with Olympic swimmer Townley Haas. By embracing partnerships, event organizers generated early enthusiasm and kept the audiences entertained throughout the 15 days.

Losing the Social Games

NBC brokered an exclusive multi-billion dollar coverage rights deal with the IOC lasting until 2032. Their marketing promised comprehensive coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

1) Tight restrictions on live video and streaming. The top complaint about this year’s Olympics concerned event coverage. One of several coverage complaints focused on accessibility. The inability to live stream this Olympics caused significant issues. Fewer 18-to-45-year-olds tuned in. While NBC claims it’s because the audience watched on other channels within the NBC family, the social conversation paints a different picture. For various reasons, users strugglers to watch events live when they wished. By the time the events were shown, in their highly packaged and edited format, the audience knew the results thanks to social sharing. Why watch a 45-second clip four hours later when you already know the outcome?

Furthermore, live videos posted by on-location members of the spectating public were quickly removed. Rower Meghan O’Leary’s post-closing ceremony video, which she thought would not violate Rule 40–more on that below–was quickly deleted from Instagram. Today’s consumers are accustomed to being involved with the action as it happens. By severely limiting on-demand access, users felt less engaged and let down by the Rio Olympics.

2) Pesky IOC Rule 40. This is comprehensive rule concerning Olympic marketing and sponsorships. A very basic summary of the social media implications of the rule is thus: non-sponsor brands can’t use a reference to Olympic results, can’t retweet or repost from official Olympic accounts, or use Olympic pictures. The restriction includes using social hashtags like #Rio2016, #TeamUSA, and #RoadtoRio. The United States Olympic Committee enforces Rule 40 under Code Chapter 2205. The rule is intended to prevent non-sponsors from violating intellectual property rights, but the rule is both confusing and restrictive. It’s as though the USOC is saying don’t discuss the largest event of the year unless you’ve paid for it. This notion goes completely against the nature of social media. People are going to discuss the Olympics and restricting the conversation is against the nature of free speech. There must be way to honor sponsorships and encourage national conversation. Some non-sponsor brands (like Adidas) did find a way around Rule 40 to launch successful marketing campaigns tagging off Olympic coverage.

The Olympic Lessons

Remember the driving force behind social media success is the public must own the conversation. That’s why unexpected, unmanufactured moments go viral. Embracing the power of social media partnerships allows marketers to reach new audiences. Welcoming the audience to take part in the event or conversation by providing easy, on-demand access is critical to social success. Hopefully the lessons from Rio will be learned in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

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