Super Bowl

Will Social Media Slay the Super Bowl?

No, It Will Only Increase the Big Game's Importance

By Published on .

Tim Calkins
Tim Calkins
Derek Rucker
Derek Rucker
Ford Motor one of the few car companies sitting out the Super Bowl this year. Why? According to Jim Farley, Ford 's global marketing chief, social media is a better investment for known and established brands. Farley explained in a recent interview: "Customers are spending as much time with the mobile smartphone or online as they are watching TV now, so our advertising dollars have to flow to where the people are."

Farley is correct in his observation that consumers are spending enormous amounts of time online this year and traditional media alone will rarely be sufficient for most brands. And, although he goes on to acknowledge the potential value of the Super Bowl for unknown brands, we don't agree that the Super Bowl is a less attractive advertising opportunity for established brands. Our view is completely the opposite: The rise of new-media platforms will only increase the importance of the Super Bowl and other high-profile events in coming years.

The world of marketing is changing quickly as technology evolves. People from across the globe can now reach and interact with brands and with each other virtually and in real time. Word of mouth has always mattered, but now people can use Facebook and Twitter to have an impact far beyond their personal acquaintances. Social media creates significant opportunities, and marketers who leverage social-networking vehicles to generate buzz will likely see great returns. Ford is a good example of this; the company has proactively reached out to bloggers to drive discussion and buzz.

Unfortunately, social media fails to guarantee that brands will reach a large number of consumers. A look at the social-media presence of many well-known brands makes the point. The Hefty brand waste bags' Facebook page has only 66,000 fans. Windex has fewer than 3,000 fans and the Hampton Inn page has less than 2,000 fans on Facebook.

The same holds true for some brands on Twitter -- Kraft's Miracle Whip has about 650 followers on Twitter, and even a global car company like Honda has fewer than 10,000 followers. Reaching consumers en masse is a core marketing challenge. And for big brands, the challenge is harder because you have to reach hundreds of thousands of people. If a brand is competing for the patronage of millions of customers, getting a few thousand followers on Twitter may not have the needed impact.

Even if consumers can be targeted en masse, there is a second important issue: engagement. How do you get people's attention? Before you can connect with a consumer, they have to notice you. You can't deliver a message if people aren't listening. Breakthrough has always been difficult, but the changing technology landscape is making it harder. Partly this is due to the increase in types of media consumers find. With more choice, audiences will tend to fragment and brands have to fight harder to win an audience. In addition, consumers now have technologies (pop-up blockers and spam filters) that make it very easy to avoid seeing advertisements and other company messages.

To put it bluntly, social media doesn't address the challenge of breakthrough. Having a Twitter account and a Facebook page is fine, but these tools will not attract people on their own. Similarly, a website is a passive vehicle -- people have to go looking for it.

In a world where marketers struggle to get attention, the Super Bowl is more valuable than ever. More than 100 million people watched the Super Bowl in 2010, and this figure dwarfs every other televised show. Also, Super Bowl advertising engages people. Many people watch the Super Bowl primarily for the advertising, which they then continue to talk about afterward. The ads are posted on YouTube and countless blogs; news outlets comment on them and people discuss them in the office the next day. The Super Bowl is arguably the single best solution to the problem of attention and reach.

Even though the Super Bowl offers both reach and engagement, some brands will leverage these opportunities beyond a 30- or 60-second spot to get as much as possible from the Super Bowl buzz. What do brands need to do to maximize their investment?

First, Super Bowl advertisers should capitalize on the power of PR. Every brand that advertises on the Super Bowl has a story to tell. PR is a critical element of the marketing mix. Marketers should reach out to engage the media to enhance consumers' interest in and attention to the spots.

Second, Super Bowl advertisers should move early. The Super Bowl is an event with a long build-up and a short life. People discuss Super Bowl advertising for weeks leading up to the game. The day after the final touchdown, the buzz is still heavy but it quickly fades.

Third, marketers should give consumers a way to get involved. Herein lies an opportunity to use social media as a flanking strategy to excite and engage consumers before and after the brand's appearance in the Super Bowl. Indeed, advertisers are using technology to involve people more than ever. For example, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are running contests on Facebook and Twitter, respectively, while Anheuser-Busch is asking people to figure out the storylines of its three spots before the game.

Finally, advertisers should always remember to focus on the strategy. Generating buzz is good but not sufficient. To create a high-impact Super Bowl campaign, consumers must understand the message, be persuaded and ultimately purchase more. Thus, brands need to think about their messaging and brand-building goals.

The Super Bowl is a unique marketing tool. Rather than social media usurping the big game, social media efforts represent yet another reason why the prized spot on the Super Bowl will only become more important. This is true for both unknown and established brands, as there is no other event that can offer the same level of reach and engagement year in and year out as the Super Bowl.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Mr. Calkins also serves as co-academic director of the school's branding program.
Derek Rucker is an associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, where he teaches advertising strategy. His primary research focuses on the study of attitudes, persuasion and social influence.

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