Underwriting Your Super Bowl Spot

How to Ensure You Make the Most of That $3 Million in a Down Economy

By Published on .

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
The plot has thickened for Super Bowl ads in 2009. The economy is hurting, skepticism of advertising is in no short supply, and the price is $3 million for a 30-second spot.

Go for it? Or run for the hills? Moreover, if you do take the plunge, what can you do to maximize your return on investment? Is past prologue, or are there new variables to consider?

Super Bowl spots today need to pass two distinct tests -- one measurable and traditional, and the other based on unique dynamics of cross-platform engagement, most notably buzz and conversation.

Let's start with more-familiar turf. On a pure impression basis, one could well argue that the Super Bowl -- the one special day when we actually "celebrate" advertising -- is such an unusual magnet for consumer attention and recall that it is worth every penny.

Indeed, curiosity, anticipation, guessing and nostalgia come into play big time. Consumers want to see the ads; they're akin to entertainment. In the past three years, Nielsen IAG research (disclosure: Nielsen cuts my check) found that Super Bowl spots achieved 31% higher breakthrough and 93% higher likability than the typical TV ad. On top of that, the spots typically receive an unusually generous layer of free media and other buzz before the game.

But it's not that simple. Timing is also a factor, according to IAG. First- and second-quarter spots yield better recall than second-half spots. And fourth-quarter spots are roughly comparable to a "normal" TV buy. Viewers' ability to associate the correct brand with the ad and reported likability levels similarly wane over the course of the game.

But the other critical variable, increasingly relevant today, is how this much-anticipated creative performs beyond commonly accepted TV metrics.

Indeed, TV can no longer be viewed in a vacuum, and the Super Bowl involves a far more complicated mix of marketing activity and user engagement. Great copy finds life in other places, from the water cooler to YouTube. Moreover, if managed properly and holistically, Super Bowl ads can benefit from a "latency" effect that rewards the brand in perpetuity via search results.

An engaging spot might lead to a site visit, a Google search or a DVR rewind. It might trigger a desire to share, forward, discuss, critique, rate or review. The latter is particularly important because it leaves a digital trail that can be measured by volume, tone, velocity, source or even "talk driver."

While some of this occurs organically, laying some groundwork beforehand can make a huge difference. In my six years of monitoring game spots, there's been no question that brands that "prime the pump" around their Super Bowl spots get far bigger buzz dividends than brands that don't.

Impact of preparation
Nationwide was so revved up two years ago for its Super Bowl spot featuring Kevin Federline that it received nearly $20 million in incremental online impressions. Tide ran a spot last year that kicked off a user-generated contest, re-engineered its search results (favorably) and ultimately produced a top-scoring traditional TV spot. Frito-Lay demonstrated that there is incremental marketing value on both the front and the back end of a spot with its "Crash the Super Bowl" contest.

Of course, not all conversation helps the brand. Negative reactions can cancel out the desired messaging, and even the market environment can disrupt the desired flow. Five years ago, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's unforgettable "Nipplegate" incident cannibalized the post-game buzz factor. And two years ago, controversy the week before the game over a marketing hoax in Boston that was mistaken for a terrorist incident compromised pre-game buzz by grabbing the attention of media writers and bloggers normally obsessed with Super Bowl advertising.

Against this backdrop, there's no guarantee of success, but a brand can certainly boost its odds by building a "marketing ecosystem" around its investments. Organizational silos need to be softened, and a host of stakeholders need to be actively enrolled: brand, agency, public relations, legal, consumer relations, digital and social media, and, of course, any media planners. More specifically, brands looking to score touchdowns should make sure they do the following:

Measure holistically
Have in place a 360-degree measurement model across all platforms for all stages of the campaign, and even well into the future. Remember, in this new "sense-and-respond" marketing environment, it's never too late to optimize and tweak.

Feed the seekers
Don't snub curious consumers. If a consumer watching the ad drops by your brand site for a visit, be prepared, and don't look clueless. Dedicate immediate real estate to the spot, perhaps in several places. And don't -- I repeat don't -- blow off search. Last year, too many advertisers didn't turn up when consumers searched for their spots. Never disappoint. Make sure you feed the seekers beyond your brand site: on publisher sites, on social-media fan sites, on relevant blogs and online communities. Your spot should be on YouTube seconds after it airs.

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). His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.

Enable friction-free sharing
Remove all barriers to sharing. Don't make consumers work to tag, embed, distribute or bookmark the ad. If you want free impressions, take the first step for the consumer. From tools such as ShareThis to countless other social-media pass-along utilities, do everything possible to help drive word-of-mouth.

Ask for feedback
Feedback and loyalty go hand in hand. Beyond providing insights, feedback makes consumers -- especially the ones with bigger megaphones -- feel more important and valued. Get consumer affairs enrolled in the process and expand its radar to venues such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and certainly blogs.

Know thy influencers
Don't run your spot without knowing your most passionate and influential consumers. It's not difficult to start building this list. Check your opt-in lists and your consumer-affairs databases. Properly managed and empowered, these consumers can provide extra lift and momentum -- even a much-needed defense if the buzz is turning sour. Oh, and don't forget to include "marketing influencers" in this equation, as there's a new Fifth Estate of marketing bloggers and Twitterers who fill the airwaves before anyone else does.

Jog the emotional memory
Dust off the archive, warm up the old jingles and use what Mad Men's Don Draper describes as "delicate yet potent" nostalgia to cement a new bond with the consumer. Remind them of other warm and fuzzy or outright hilarious moments in your brand's advertising history. Think of your Super Bowl ad as a reunion of sorts with the consumer.

Prime with external search
Capitalize on consumer curiosity about the advertising by purchasing a wide range of relevant keywords to get consumers to your spot or content that drives engagement around the spot. Last year, a number of smart brands bought the terms "Super Bowl" and even "advertising," and that helped drive traffic. Don't hesitate to use conversational insights to buy keywords even after the game.

In a world of media fragmentation and consumer control, all these things matter. If they are implemented successfully, a brand may well see bigger gains not only in overall buzz in the following weeks but also on more-traditional brand measures such as purchase intent and opinion.

So the answer here isn't as obvious as it seems. The down economy certainly raises tough questions, but don't rule out the right combination of marketing plays that can put the letters R-O-I on the scoreboard.

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