The 2012 Social Media Olympics: Tweeting For The Gold

Recently, the London Summer Olympics captured the world’s attention, and social media played a much bigger role in amplifying that attention than ever before.

As the Associated Press reported before the games even began in late July, the growth in social media has skyrocketed since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For example, Twitter had only 6 million users four years ago, and it now has 140 million—an explosive 428% spike. Facebook also mushroomed from 100 million users to 900 million during the same period. The increasingly ubiquity of smartphones and other mobile devices also meant that more people could access social media more easily and more often—which they obviously did, putting out over 150 million tweets during the 16-day event.

Since the Olympic organizers themselves have dubbed this the “Social Media Olympics,” all of us at Social Media Magic thought it was more than appropriate to not just honor the athletes who excelled at the games, but also properly recognize who made best use of the new technology that has now found a pivotal place at these kinds of international events.

NON-MEDALIST: The International Olympic Committee

Even as the IOC emphasized the importance of using social media to this year’s games with one hand, they clamped down on it with the other, by issuing a set of restrictive rules that handcuffed Olympics participants in their usage of Twitter and Facebook. Athletes were not allowed to post pictures and video from the events themselves or even visually reference the famous five-ring Olympic logo in any way. They also could not acknowledge personal sponsors in any way, leading to (ironically enough) a social media-driven protest by American athletes. The IOC’s policies demonstrated that despite social media’s immense growth, many organizations still remain out of touch with its development, its potential, and its pace.

BRONZE MEDAL: Businesses and Brands

The 11 biggest Olympic sponsors paid out over a billion dollars for that privilege and focused much of their marketing effort in the social media arena. Coca-Cola tried to co-create viral music videos, Visa did some athlete-boosting, while GE offered health tips. The potential problem is…did any of this activity actually do anything for these big brands?

According to Proctor & Gamble global brand-building officer Marc Pritchard, yes. Pritchard told USA Today, "We have evidence that our social-media space provides a better return than TV." And he went on to say that he believes P&G’s social media marketing will provide fully 50% of consumer impressions from the summer games.

So why then only the bronze for business then? Because they will need to continue to successfully engage consumers on social media sites to make this burst of Olympic-sized marketing pay off. Most experts agree that social promotions may provide a quick spike of “Likes” (for example, Nike gained almost 170,000 new Facebook fans during the games), but, long term, it’s more important to build lasting relationships with current and potential customers.

SILVER MEDAL: Olympic Athletes

Olympic athletes, despite the IOC’s heavy social media restrictions, proved to be brilliant not only in competition but also in creating memorable online presences. Usain Bolt’s gold medal win in the 200m final spurred 80,000 tweets per minute in the race’s aftermath, while U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas saw her Facebook fans grow in number from a little over 14,000 to almost 600,000 in just two weeks. In virtually all cases, athletes who took to social media were able to engage in positive interaction with their fans, making it a big win-win for both sides.

Even when British diver Tom Daley got hit with a hateful tweet after a disappointing performance, he retweeted the tasteless insult and his 800,000 followers swarmed to his defense, raising his profile even higher in the process.

GOLD MEDAL: Viewers Engaged in Social Media

No matter how much businesses, governments, and organizations such as the IOC try to control the message, viewers engaged in social media still got the last word. In response to public outcry via social media, NBC was forced to play defense when Twitter protests were launched against the network’s refusal to show the Opening Ceremonies live, even online. Even Twitter was forced to face its own intense criticism when it deleted the account of a British journalist who also criticized the network (Twitter and NBC had entered into a partnership for the Olympic games). Regardless of the actions and social media activities of the IOC and the big brands behind the games, it will likely be the input of social media users at large that will have the biggest impact on how the Olympics and other worldwide events approach social media engagement in the future.

And that’s a reality that all brands should consider when trying to go for the gold in social media.

[Image: Flickr user Joel Down]

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