Five Questions with the CMO of USA Swimming

Matt Farrell's Challenge: Translate Olympic Fervor into Grassroots Participation

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Matt Farrell
Matt Farrell

Matt Farrell's first Olympic experience was 20 years ago when he served as a researcher for NBC during a college internship. This past Sunday, the day after the swimming events wrapped, he flew home to Colorado, having logged his ninth Olympic Games. As the CMO for USA Swimming and the former associate director-entertainment properties for the United States Olympic Committee, Mr. Farrell is well versed in all things Olympics. Yet he's struggling with the same challenge many marketers face: How do you translate interest in a big event into action?

Last year, with the London Olympic Games looming, the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association conducted a study that found swimming ranked as a sport all ages aspire to participate in. Armed with that information, USA Swimming set out to create Swim Today, a program that helps people determine the type of swimmer they are, as well as connect with local swimming clubs.

The campaign includes digital advertising, a deal with LivingSocial to offer discounts on swim lessons and club memberships, public relations outreach and a partnership with First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! effort. There's also a partnership with Disney Pixar around the release of Finding Nemo 3-D, in which the characters and top swimmers encourage people to "Just Keep Swimming."

"We needed to translate the Olympic excitement into [helping people figure out] where they fit into the sport," explained Mr. Farrell. "The simplicity of it, that was the ah-ha moment. We'll help you find where you fit and then direct you to a place to get involved."

Here, Mr. Farrell, who took in track and field events, as well as gymnastics during his time in London, talks about the Swim Today effort, why a "Call Me Maybe" parody represents USA Swimming just as well as any medal and Michael Phelps' retirement.

Ad Age : Have you had efforts like Swim Today tied to past Olympics?

Mr. Farrell: This is the most concerted effort we've done. Our goal is to drive participation in the sport, but the hope is that we create a case study for other sports with big events, whether it's World Cup or Olympics. We want to create a formula for how to translate the big event to grassroots participation.

Admittedly, we're trying a lot of different things. Together with our corporate partner Speedo, we've engaged Summer Sanders as our spokesperson. She's an Olympic medalist and mom of two kids. We're experimenting with some mommy blog outreach. We're doing some advertising on Facebook and Google Ad Words. We had signage on the pool deck at the Olympic Trials. We have a deal with LivingSocial -- 2,000 people have purchased deals in the first week with 25 facilities across the country. That's going a direction we really like.

We knew we'd throw 10 different tactics at this and some would work better than others. The way we're measuring success is how many people come to our website and do a search for a swim club in their area. Since the trials started, from late June to now, we've had 3.5 times more searches for [local swim clubs] than the rest of 2012 combined. By that metric we're really pleased with how the campaign is going.

Ad Age : You have the small budget typical of non-profits, but during the Olympic Games you're up against brands that have enormous amounts of money to spend to attract consumers' attention. How do you compete?

Mr. Farrell: I don't think we truly can. On Swim Today, we've spent in the neighborhood of $150,000, which is big for us, but a rounding error for a major corporation. Here's where I think we have an advantage -- we're not trying to break through the clutter and sell more consumer packaged goods items. Our premise is , you've watched swimming at the Olympics and gotten excited about the Olympics. Then you're taking action, taking the next step. That's where we're trying to be. It's easy to get swallowed up in the Olympic clutter, so we're trying to be strategic about it.

Ad Age : The U.S. swim team's send up of "Call Me Maybe" has been a viral hit, with 9 million views. Where did the idea come from? Did you have any idea it would get so much attention?

Mr. Farrell: No CMO ever wants to admit this, but I didn't know it was being created. After the Olympic Trials, the team goes to training camp. The PR director planted the seed with the team and a few members of the team took over, did the choreographing and shot it with scenes from the team airplane and training camp. A gentleman on our staff edited it on his laptop, and I saw it when it was a finished product via an all-staff email.

My first reaction? I absolutely howled laughing at my desk. My second thought was, "Oh no, music rights." At the time, I didn't realize there had been so many other parodies.

I think it's a brilliant thing for the sport, because we all see the competition and the interviews on TV, but this truly showed a personal side of these very accomplished athletes in a way that no interview is ever going to bring out. We know kids join swim teams not necessarily because they want to be Olympians, but because they want something fun. This represents the sport just as well as any gold medal, just in a different way.

Ad Age : What impact has Michael Phelps had on the sport and what does it mean now that he's retiring?

Mr. Farrell: I think we'll see a benefit from Michael Phelps' participation for decades. He has absolutely transcended the sport in many ways. He's made more people look at the sport, in particular boys, than we could have ever imagined. What's it look like without Michael Phelps? Well the good news is there are many other stars who have come up and made a name for themselves this week, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Cullen Jones.

Ad Age : There have been plenty of other swimming storylines outside of the pool. There's Ryan Lochte's popularity with the ladies, and the relationship between Rebecca Soni and Ricky Berens. As CMO, how do you feel about that ? Is it a good thing, a bad thing?

Mr. Farrell: I don't know how to answer that . Things like Twitter have made it more prevalent than ever before, definitely. The good thing about swimming and swimmers is 99% of the time they're doing something that I'm proud to have my own kids watch. Wearing the CMO hat, those are things you just love to see, the personal side of the swimmers. And, almost every time, I'm proud of how they handle themselves in the pool and outside of the pool.

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