A Game Plan for the ‘Social Bowl’

“The Super Bowl used to be about a football game.”

Those of us in sports media and marketing have become accustomed to hearing that statement, usually communicated in a tone similar to a parent saying, “In my day, things were different.” This year, with more Super Bowl advertisers than ever before taking advantage of social media to extend the lives of their campaigns, the “it used to be about a game” comment has been invoked even more frequently by commentators.

The truth is that the last time the Super Bowl was “just about a football game” was Jan. 15, 1967, the day that Green Bay played Kansas City in the first Super Bowl.

At that first game, there were so few people in attendance that NFL officials had to ask everyone to sit in the center of the stands so that television cameras filming the action wouldn’t show empty seats.

The game aired on two networks, CBS and NBC, in the afternoon in order to avoid interfering with the evening TV programming. In addition, that first Super Bowl was prerecorded and not broadcast live.

After all, it was just a football game—until the viewership information was released. A total of 40 million viewers watched the two network broadcasts. It was an astounding number considering that that week’s top-rated prime-time program, The Andy Griffith Show, drew 15.6 million viewers.

This moment signified the Super Bowl’s transformation from a game to an iconic American event—and one that has always been an inherently “social” experience.

Long before the Internet, the social rituals of the game—groups of people coming together in living rooms and sports bars across the country to watch the broadcast—gave advertisers a platform for extending the discussion about their brands beyond a 30-second spot.

The Internet—with its capacity to tap into news sites, social networks and fantasy leagues’ network of players—has simply made it a much bigger and longer party.

Just ask the NFL.

In 2008, Fox’s MySpace integration with spots airing during the game marked the first meaningful use of social media in the Super Bowl. Ever since, TV ratings for the big game have increased year over year. In the weeks leading up the 2010 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts, Twitter, Facebook and other Internet blogs were all abuzz with Super Bowl discussion, whether it was about watching the game, the television ads or Americans rallying behind the still beleaguered city of New Orleans. Considering the game was the most watched TV show ever, garnering 106.5 million viewers, it is not unreasonable to conclude that social media may have been a factor.

From an advertiser’s standpoint, 2011 is shaping up to be the year that the Super Bowl will become the “Social Bowl.” And, as always, some brands will score a touchdown while others won’t make it past the 10-yard line. Those that dominate will most likely have included some or all of the following plays in their game plan:

Remember that the Social Bowl is basically a new version of an old game. Marketers have always looked for opportunities to broaden their platforms around the Super Bowl. Whether the platform is in-store promotions or social networks, the same strategies apply—the more relevant the social component is to the event itself, the more effective it will be. Doritos Crash the Super Bowl campaign is an excellent example of a social platform that integrates the brand and the event to support extended engagement.

Use social media to make a connection, not simply to make noise. With numerous Super Bowl advertisers using social platforms, it will be difficult to stand out in the flood of brands clamoring for attention. In order to establish relationships with consumers that last beyond the 30-second spots, it is necessary to use social media to enhance conversations.
Have the proper infrastructure to support a Social Bowl execution. 2010 Super Bowl advertisers that garnered the biggest buzz and reached the most fans—from Frito-Lay and Budweiser to Denny’s and Snickers—had solid digital foundations.