08/19/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2012

Beyond Spoilers: What the 2012 Olympics Taught Us About Multi-Screen Media in the Twitter Age

The spoiler police would have you thinking that the NBC network's time-shifted coverage of the London 2012 Olympics was the broadcasting scandal of the century, as medalists became common knowledge worldwide long before their events aired in prime time. In reality, the experience of this year's games just shows us how much viewer behaviors and expectations have evolved -- and suggest new ways for brands to think about event coverage in our multi-screen world.

Technically, NBC did not do anything new to deserve the criticism some had directed its way. The network covered the Olympic Games the same way it has for decades, airing the most popular events on tape in prime time (instead of live) to accommodate for the time zone difference. All that's new this year is the explosion of "always-on" social media -- including more than 50 million tweets about the Olympics, according to Twitter. That's a lot of spoilers! But how much do they really matter?

Even before the games started, we knew one important piece of information: it's not just about the TV anymore. A survey commissioned by Velti and conducted online by Harris Interactive in July showed that 40 percent of those who planned to follow the Olympics intended to do so on two or more devices. When looking at both smartphones and tablets, roughly equal numbers of people planned to watch non-live content, such as video clips and replays, as those who planned to stream live coverage.

With so many people receiving Olympic results ahead of time, either through social media, live streams, or other live sources, the audience for time-shifted coverage should have plummeted -- right? Yet NBC's ratings were as strong as ever. Clearly live event viewership is not the zero-sum, black-and-white proposition some would have us believe. Instead, we can infer a few more nuanced points:
• Different screens serve different needs. If you want to watch events as they happen, wherever you happen to be, a smartphone or tablet is just the device to use. If you want the storytelling behind the event -- profiles, interviews, history, rooting interest -- TV is ideal for deeply engaging, lean-back content.
• It's not just about finding out who wins. Even when you already know the outcome, you want to see how it plays out, in full sound and motion, in a rich environment of context and commentary.
• Sporting events are inherently social. The Velti online survey also found that 39 percent of U.S. adults using their smartphones to follow the games would also be communicating with their peers via talk and/or text. Back in the day, people gathered around TVs to share the Olympics experience; today, they're just as likely to do so through their mobile devices.

For brands seeking to leverage the excitement around live events, this means that:
• True reach must extend across platforms. If you're only on one screen, you're leaving your brand out of a big part of your audience's experience. Conversely, a multi-screen campaign will reinforce your brand at multiple points: both in the viewer's hand and on the screen across the room; both live as it happens and later in prime time.
• Campaigns should reflect the way people use each platform: fast-paced experiences on mobile and online to reflect real-time excitement without getting in its way; deeper engagement and storytelling during time-shifted coverage.
• By weaving your campaign into the social aspect of the experience, you can make your brand part of the conversation in a new way while gaining valuable viral exposure.

Shazam launched a 'Social TV Interactive Experience' for the 2012 games that illustrates this new thinking. The app gives viewers instant access during the NBC broadcast to additional content on their mobile device, including the ability to download the NBC Olympics apps and keep up with the schedule of events and medal counts. Up-to-the-minute results on all events were complemented by in-depth coverage of athletes including bios, news, and photos, satisfying the audience's desire for both types of experiences. Interactive viewer polls and social media integration made it simple for people to share their experience of the games. Other apps, like Showyou, automatically highlighted the Olympics content that was most shared with its users within the app and other social networks, taking the mobile experience to another level.

While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were making history, the London 2012 Olympics left a different legacy for brands -- as the first multi-screen event of its scale. The games raised the bar for creative, forward-thinking cross-platform campaigns and rewarded the marketers who rose to the challenge.