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Shortly after Friday morning’s US – Slovenia World Cup match, which ended in a draw following a absolutely terrible contentious officiating call, I logged onto Twitter to join scores of US soccer fans tweeting their collective disgust over the outcome only to reach Twitter’s ‘fail whale’ screen…my second ‘fail whale’ in less than a week of World Cup play.

These fail whales led me to do a bit of research about the popularity of Twitter around sporting events and how this is being utilized by marketers.

As it turns out, both the World Cup and the NBA Finals have been a bit overwhelming for Twitter. Records for posts in a single day have been broken and re-broken, with major peaks occurring around the times points are scored. As Benny Evangelista of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in a recent blog post, Twitter has experienced several site outages, slowness, bursts of error messages, duplicated or missing tweets and timeline problems that can be attributed to the World Cup.

Beyond a discussion of why Twitter’s architecture is unable to handle the tweet traffic of so many sports fans, this points to an interesting shift in the demographic of Twitter users (see Claire Cain Miller’s excellent NY Times article here). Where once the social networking site was composed primarily of early adopters in hi-tech hot spots, it has become apparent that the makeup of Twitter has started to reflect the interests of the general population.

As Twitter more closely mirrors a cross-section of the US and the world at large, it has become a valuable tool for measuring the buzz associated with any given product or event. In a recent Wall Street Journal blog post, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries describes how Twitter is now one of the primary measurement tools for determining which brands are winning the World Cup marketing battle. Much to the dismay of official FIFA World Cup sponsor Adidas, Nike has dominated World Cup online chatter, with a dominant share of Twitter mentions.

While ambush marketing has long plagued official sponsors, the rise of Twitter and social media creates new headaches for official sponsors. As brands learn to capitalize on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, their successful domination of world events is leading savvy marketers to ask whether the sponsorship of a major sporting event is necessary in the era of social media.

For the next Olympic Games, should companies shell out millions of dollars just to have exclusive rights?

While I believe that sponsorship of major events continues to have a significant ROI, sponsors must be aware that the marketing game has changed. As Nike has successfully demonstrated, to become the brand most commonly associated with the World Cup, a company must make use of social media to drive creative content across the Internet.

When considering the ROI for sponsorship of major events, one thing is certain–sponsorships alone will not ensure a victory. Word is still out on if scored goals will.

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