The World Cup of Social Media

Given Unparalleled Levels of Audience Engagement and Participation, Marketers Need to Get in the Game

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
I'll never forget attending my first World Cup game. It was back in 1994 and took place in my hometown Rose Bowl, the same field where I marched in gleeful pride at Pasadena High School's graduation.

Romania squared off vs. Argentina. The game was nothing short of electrifying. Back then my word-of-mouth trajectory seemed unlimited. Armed with both AOL and Compuserve accounts, my post-game "dude, I was there" viral dispatches flew across my network of friends, family, business-school classmates and fellow P&G summer interns with almost unrestrained velocity.

Fast forward to the present: The world has changed with the force of an extra-strength Zidane head-butt. We're experiencing the World Cup of Social Media. We not only attend and watch in record numbers—19.4 million U.S. viewers watched the US vs. Ghana game, according to my Nielsen colleagues -- but we also engage, participate, co-create, replay, re-say, blow digital vuvuzelas and more.

Indeed, the stadium is flattening. We're all part of a new genre in content creation and consumption called "fanned media." The fan voice is louder, infinitely more networked and viral, more inclusive, and unquestionably -- and wonderfully -- global.

The biggest buzz in sports
Relative to the Super Bowl, Olympics or even high-engagement TV events of the last 12 months -- from the BET awards to the Academy Awards -- the 2010 World Cup is kicking the buzz ball faster and farther, and across every expression platform, from mobile phones to iPads.

As a viewer and participant in the buzz myself, I've been sucked into the event from all corners of the field. The vast majority of my TV consumption is accompanied by Twitter and other social media. I've tested BlackBerry apps, cheered with iPhone apps, fanned Facebook pages, and become nothing short of addicted to EA's World Cup Soccer game. I zealously fish for "goal of the day" video clips on both the Univision and ESPN sites as well as their apps. To complete the perfect noisy backdrop, my four-year-old twins keep the living room humming with incessant blasts at the iPad vuvuzela app. Who needs the stadium?

Concurrently watching TV and tweeting is like being an armchair referee surrounded by a fire hydrant of intoxicatingly emotional, uncensored textual grunts. It debunks the notion of digital divide (low barriers for everyone), and screams the word "global" louder than the U.N. Indeed, I knew the tide had turned when I noticed last Sunday that a majority of Twitter's trending topics were either in Spanish or focused on Mexican team members. In recent days, buzz in Portugese has reached new heights, punctuated by frenzied conversation on Diego Souza. Facebook and blog trends generally echo such multilingual activity.

Lessons for marketers
There are tons of lessons here for those of us in marketing. First, in a world of incessant fan participation, there's real upside in feeding the conversational frenzy ahead of time, irrespective of whether you are a sponsor. In a recent presentation to the ARF on forging synergy between "paid media" and "earned media," I dubbed this the "Brand Readiness" factor. Non-sponsor Nike bent this one better than Beckham through the hugely successful TV copy it seeded via YouTube weeks before the first game, earning a whopping 30% of pre-game buzz, according to my Nielsen-McKinsey Incite colleagues.

Adidas eventually caught up, and pulled ahead, but Nike got there first. Key takeaway: Start thinking now about how to "prime the pump" for your next Super Bowl spot.

Second, don't put off "global" or "multilingual" to phase two of your social-media roadmap. Bump it up and use the fire hydrant of screaming data from the World Cup to make your case. You might even try to convince your CEO that social media is a better "global" accelerator and catalyst than any other corporate strategy.

If you have to make choices, or are getting an inevitable "focus" lecture from top brass, start with Spanish, as you'll lay foundation for global strategy and also get a leg up about the fastest-growing minority segment in the United States. But wherever you start, just put this ball in play.

Third, staying agile and adaptive is more important than ever. Keep those Twitter and Facebook accounts staffed 24/7 -- who knows where the momentum will swing?

Watch for the negative
Along the way, be on guard for "spurned media" -- paid or earned media gone negative. "Spurned media" might tell you that now is not the time to over-pay for French soccer-player endorsement or sponsorship contracts. Or that if you have a TV spot poking fun at bad referee calls, you might find a more engaged (or enraged) audience. Heed the early signals and adapt.

Fourth, squeeze as much value as you can from your core investments, even TV. TV may well be the best vehicle to jump start, reinforce or re-circulate a social-media effort.

Lastly, use this historic inflection point to change your game. In essence, we're now wrapping up the third leg of an "engagement trifecta" -- the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Cup -- that's not only pooled one of the largest ad buys in advertising history, but also precipitated unparalleled levels of audience engagement and participation. Dust off the re-org memo. Put the data in play. Exploit your top competitor's World Cup social-media exploits to wake up your most calcified layers of middle management.

Remember, even if you sat on the ad-spend sidelines this go-round, you still need to play on this marketing field sooner or later.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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