NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Audi's ad debuts Feb. 6 during Super Bowl XLV in the first break in the game, it will contain a hashtag so viewers can follow conversations about the ad on Twitter. Will a majority of viewers have a clue what the symbol means? Probably not. But its mere presence is a sign that Super Bowl advertisers are tapping social media to extend their buy like never before.
In Audi's case, the TV spot is the starting point and Twitter is the vehicle for extending the experience beyond the first pod of the game. "You need television spots that are obviously humorous and creative, that cause a conversation, that have some kind of cause or meaning behind it," said Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer. But "truth be told, the cause can only be sustained by social media."
Mr. Keogh is not alone. More than ever, marketers who enter the Super Bowl are taking part in a multi-week buzz contest rather than a onetime showing of their ad during a football game. "There's no doubt that the social component provides a buzz," said Chuck Tomkovick, a professor of marketing at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who has studied Super Bowl ads for years.
And there's then the not-so-insignificant fact that linking digital and social initiatives to a TV effort can boost results and amortize costs -- especially when you're paying up to $3 million for prime Super Bowl inventory. "There's significantly less expense" when it comes to harnessing these emerging venues, said Donnie Williams, chief digital officer at Horizon Media. "You pay a fraction of what you pay for the Super Bowl ad and you get dramatic value on top of your overall investment."
Or, as Nick Utton, chief marketing officer of E-Trade, which is bringing its baby back to the Bowl, said: "The CFO is looking over your shoulder: 'Did we make a return on our investment?'"
The King of Beers is trying to drum up pre-game interest around a Clydesdales-themed Super Bowl ad for Budweiser, starting with two 15-second "to-be-continued" commercials that ran during the AFC and NFC championship games, amping up the tease with still shots of its three Bud Light Super Bowl ads on its Facebook page. If users can "work together" to guess the plotlines, Bud Light promises not cash or free beer, but another commercial. (Gee, thanks.) If no one guesses, you'll sadly have to wait to see the 90-second, internet-only spot that will be released sometime after the game.
This seems to be the year social networking charges onto the field. Consider that E-Trade was the only advertiser among the 2009 and 2010 Super Bowl rosters to even add a tease to its Facebook or Twitter presence at the close of the ad, according to research done by students of Mr. Tomkovick.
Teleflora, back again for its third round as a Super Bowl advertiser, has in the past used Facebook to spark conversations about its commercial. But this year, it's placing even more emphasis on the social-media aspect of the campaign. "This year is definitely more of an intense marketing effort, because the channel is becoming more developed," said Laurie McCartney, Teleflora's chief marketing officer.
Weeks before the game, E-Trade was stoking interest by seeding its wisecracking baby character into the playoffs, having him interact with sports commentators on both Fox and CBS as what Mr. Utton called "a prognosticator" of the eventual victors going to the Super Bowl. The baby will also banter with on-air anchors during the Super Bowl pregame. In addition, E-Trade will show outtakes from its popular commercials on YouTube and advertise on YouTube during the days before the Bowl. "For $100,000 a second, you'd better leverage" the Super Bowl commercial for all it's worth, he said.
Meanwhile, Teleflora is hoping its Super Bowl spot featuring country crooner Faith Hill will turn heads. But why leave things to chance? Look for the commercial to draw attention to a Teleflora "Flower Coach" app for iPhone and iPad app that will let consumers tell friends via email or Twitter that they are sending them flowers.
Volkswagen returns to the Super Bowl armed with research that bears out social media's value, said Tim Ellis, VP-marketing, Volkswagen of America. The car maker bought time in the Super Bowl in 2010 after a nine-year absence and found 1 million people saw its ad online after the game; of those, 850,000 viewed the commercial on YouTube, so the automaker is doing a YouTube "takeover" the day after the game. The company also found a wide swath of TV viewers going online to check out sports-news sites during the Super Bowl broadcast, so VW responded by doing a takeover of ESPN's mobile site during the game, featuring the ads.
The social-media maneuvers simply signal advertisers are following consumer behavior. A recent survey from Lightspeed Research estimated that nearly two-thirds of viewers aged 18 to 34 who plan to watch the Super Bowl also plan to make use of a smartphone. Of those with a smartphone, 59% will be sending emails or text messages about the game, 18% will be checking out ads online from their phones, and 18% will visit advertiser websites. Almost a third, or 32%, will be posting comments about the game on a social network, according to the survey.
And, Audi hopes, using its hashtag.
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Contributing: E.J. Schultz