Olympic sponsors will spend untold millions of dollars in a desperate attempt to shape, mold and control one thing: consumer use of social media.
It won't be easy. Even if these are the Social Games — as they have been tagged — for the big-spending sponsors, there could be more losers than winners.
"People use social media to connect with each other," says Nate Elliott, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, the tech consultancy. "They don't use it much to connect with brands."
That's hardly stopping the big sponsors from trying. Nor, for that matter, do they have a choice. The 11 biggest corporate sponsors doled out nearly $1 billion for the rights to flaunt the Olympic seal during the London Games and 2010's Winter Games in Vancouver.
Coca-Cola is using social media to nudge Olympic fans to create and share music videos. General Electric is using it to coax folks to improve their health. Visa is using it to nudge fans to post elaborate cheers for the athletes. During the London Games, "we are going to see the use of social media surpass any sporting event in history," says Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers.
The Big Question for sponsors entering the 2012 Summer Games: Is the enormous amount of time and money that Olympic marketers are pouring into social media a brilliant investment — or a gigantic waste? Answer: Yes — to both.
Consider: 87% of adults in the U.S. who go online say they've used some form of social media in 2012, reports Forrester. That compares with 63% in 2007. That's why 80% of marketers are using online video, such as YouTube, in 2012, vs. 64% in 2011, says a recent ANA digital survey. And 90% of marketers are using social media as part of their marketing mix, reports the ANA.
Two years ago, Olympic sponsor Procter & Gamble figures roughly 10% of the total Winter Games ad impressions that it left in the minds of consumers were from social media. But for the London Games, its global brand-building officer, Marc Pritchard is making an astounding projection: Social media will account for roughly half its impressions.
"We have evidence," Pritchard asserts, "that our social-media space provides a better return than TV."
But getting folks using Facebook or Twitter to focus on brands — instead of athletes — may be an Olympian task. While social-media activity for Olympic sponsors might be enormously successful in terms of hits or likes, people suppress the brand name if the brand doesn't have a natural fit with the social-media activity, says brand consultant Martin Lindstrom. As a result, says the author of Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy, the enormous amount of social-media spending for most of the major Olympic sponsors "is nothing more than a lot of time and money wasted."
Many brands would be better served plowing the millions of dollars they're spending on social promotions into developing one-on-one relations with consumers, says marketing guru and author Julie Hall.
Sure, social media will result in more than 500 billion "peer influence impressions" in 2012, Forrester projects. But, says Elliott, Olympic sponsors need to face one reality: The majority of what people post online is not about products or brands — it's about themselves, their interests and their friends.