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Lessons From the Super Bowl: It's All About the Conversation

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When explaining social media to executives, I describe it as one large cocktail party. One would never walk into a room full of people, clink a fork to a wine glass, and yell "Hi. I'm from ACME Corporation and I'm here to tell you about my latest product." Even worse would be for a marketer to only talk from pre-approved scripts, with no regard for the conversation in the room or any unexpected events.

Yet far too many marketing executives who built their careers in the era of one-way broadcast still use exactly that approach in social media. Sunday night's Super Bowl -- the ultimate cocktail party celebrated throughout the world -- was a prime example, as brands that spent millions of dollars on largely mediocre ads were outshined by marketers who were nimble enough to quickly jump into the conversation.

To their credit, many brands recognized that many viewers are following the game online while watching their TV -- a Century 21 study found that 52 percent of Americans who use social media said they would be using social media during the game -- and many ads pointed viewers to the companies' social sites.

But when something unscripted happened, very few brands were prepared to join the conversation. And those that did -- Oreo, Audi, MLB -- were warmly welcomed and richly rewarded with tens of thousands of retweets and mentions, not from $4 million ads but from free tweets.

Some lessons:

  • Social media is a real-time conversation. Brands need to be prepared to jump in and participate. Just a few years ago, brands got credit for having a Facebook or Twitter account. Now, it's essential. In the same way, being part of the conversation will become the norm and brands that aren't will become irrelevant.
  • Pre-approved scripts don't work. And scheduled posts are a complete no-no. Social media is a communal activity. If you're only talking, not listening to what others are saying and not responding to them, you're not being social. And in our fast-paced news world, it is inappropriate (or even offensive) to be posting pre-scheduled generic marketing messages at times when the community is focused on a major news story or tragedy.
  • Brands need to be able to react real-time. Oreo was able to succeed because it had two executives watching the game at the agency who could approve posts instantly. I'm largely opposed to companies outsourcing their social posts, as it's too great a risk. But those that do need to ensure that someone with authority is always ready to approve engaging with customers and reacting real-time to current events, whether for company-specific crisis communications, or to take advantage of newsworthy events like the Super Bowl blackout.
  • The conversation is happening on Twitter, not Facebook. Sure Facebook has more users (for now) and more time spent on the site. But the real conversation is happening on Twitter, and Twitter's dominance will continue to expand. Marketing Land's Matt McGee counted that 50 percent of Super Bowl ads referred viewers to Twitter, while only 8 percent mentioned Facebook.
  • Customers want to be engaged, not targeted. With the exception of a few "passion" brands whose customers wait for any bit of product news, customers largely don't care about products. (If we cared, brands wouldn't have to pay $4 million for ads to reach us.) If you want people to be talking about your company or product, you need to be part of your customers' lifestyle and community and find reasons why they should care about you (such as helping your community or being really funny).

Brands have come a long way in just a few years in understanding how connective technologies have changed the relationship between marketers and customers. However, there's still a long way to go.

And a bit of advice -- if you're responsible for your company's social media accounts, start making plans right now for how you're going to manage the Grammy Awards this Sunday.