The Super Bowl is an advertiser’s dream because it’s the rare occasion when Americans gather together, in front of a live television event, to actually watch commercials (and a football game, of course).
But this is 2011, so it’s no longer enough to just create a gag that people can snicker over while munching on chips and dip.
The explosion over the past few years of Facebook, Twitter and other sharing sites has pushed even the most venerable and traditional brands to dip their toe into the world of social media. That push is expected to be especially apparent during the Super Bowl, with many major advertisers trying different tricks to get users to go from traditional TV ad to Facebook page or Twitter feed.
“Very few people buy a Super Bowl ad just because they want 30 seconds of attention on the game,” said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University and an expert on Super Bowl advertising. “People buy a Super Bowl spot because they want to participate in all the frenzy that surrounds it.”
Still, while even the most stalwart companies are starting to accept that they need a social media presence, many are still struggling with how to do it.
“The intent is there, and now we’re seeing the dollars to back it,” said Amy Martin, founder of Digital Royalty, which develops social media strategies for corporations and athletes. “The execution is really what (needs) to be evaluated, in my opinion.”
It’s a risky proposition for companies. A social media campaign has the potential to make your loyal customers even bigger fans, or draw in new customers. But companies also have to be prepared for the fact that they can’t control what people will write or tweet about them, positive or negative.
“That’s the great challenge as well as the great promise of social communication,” said Jay Baer, president of the social media strategy consulting firm Convince & Convert.
In another break from Super Bowl tradition — and attempt to get more out of their multimillion-dollar ad buy — some companies have already begun previewing details of their Super Bowl campaigns.
Bud Light's Unlock the Spot campaign invites Facebook fans to guess what its Super Bowl ads will be about based on an image. Once the plots have been correctly identified, it's going to "unlock" a new commercial.
Vacation rental company HomeAway is using videos and its website to build interest in its fictional Ministry of Detourism, and the company promises more social media elements as time goes on.
Audi began showing “companion ads” to its Super Bowl spots during playoff games, playing on the theme of old and new luxury. The company said it also plans to launch a social media element related to that theme, utilizing Twitter and Facebook.
Others companies are pushing the social media element most heavily ahead of the game.
Frito-Lay is expanding its “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign, which for the past few years has invited consumers to submit their own Doritos commercials, to include fan-generated Pepsi Max ads. Fans vote for their favorite ads on the company’s website, and the top picks air during the Super Bowl.
Mercedes-Benz, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser, is launching a “Tweet Race” in which four teams use Mercedes vehicles to race to Dallas. The teams are “fueled” by how many times fans tweet using a hashtag from their favorite team.
The upscale automakers’ campaign has generated a lot of attention, but it’s also led to some criticism and confusion among fans who didn’t understand it or couldn’t get it to work. That’s something Steve Cannon, the carmaker’s vice president of marketing, said the company has to be comfortable with if they are going to run a social media campaign.
“You’ve got to be open for experimentation,” Cannon said. “You’ve got to be open to allow folks to have a bit more control of your brand.”
Mercedes-Benz’s foray into social media and the Super Bowl is less about selling cars tomorrow than about reaching a broader audience, including younger drivers, ahead of the launch of a slate of new vehicles in 2013. To do that, the company felt like it had be more approachable to those users.
“We are a very aspirational brand, and for some folks, they don’t even consider us because they put us up on the Mount Olympus of brands,” Cannon said.
But Cannon said the early effort is also about testing techniques.
“For me, it’s essential to get off the sidelines and kind of understand what works inside of social media (and) what doesn’t work inside of social media,” he said. “And I really believe that the only way to do that is to dive in.”
Jay Baer, of Convince & Convert, thinks the Mercedes-Benz campaign has taken people off guard because the company dove in so aggressively after showing very little interest in social media before now. But he also said the nature of the campaign itself seems a bit at odds with the company’s normally reserved, controlled brand.
“It just feels a little down-market for their brand, in my opinion,” Baer said.
On the other hand, Baer said Doritos' Crash the Super Bowl campaign makes sense because their young, male demographic is very likely to want to try to make their own ad, and comment on one another's efforts. Another company could see that attempt fall flat.
Although his job is to focus on social media, Baer thinks it’s ludicrous to suggest that social media will completely replace TV ads and more traditional advertising .
That’s because that type of advertising – especially at a big event such as the Super Bowl – puts your brand in front of such a wide swath of people. That’s likely one reason the Super Bowl ad space sold out despite the weak economy and increasing use of social media.
On the other hand, Baer said a potential customer needs to seek out a Facebook page or a Twitter feed.
“Social media is almost always preaching to the choir, whereas traditional (advertising) is almost always not preaching to the choir,” he said.
Still, that doesn’t mean that companies these days can – or should – avoid social media.
Martin, of Digital Royalty, said that’s partly because their competitors are busy building their social media presence and you risk getting left out. It’s also because people will talk about your brand via social media whether you want them to or not.
Still, even companies that have a social media effort can’t expect to completely manage how people talk about them. For example, oil giant BP has a Twitter feed of its own, @BP_America, it has often been upstaged by the fake feed, @BPGlobalPR.
“You spark the conversation, but you can’t control the content,” Calkins said.
And even if a social media campaign does the job of drawing in fans and generating buzz, companies face another challenge: Judging whether all those Twitter followers or YouTube viewings are actually translating into dollars.
“It’s one thing to get a discussion going, but it’s another thing to actually get sales and revenue from the discussion,” Calkins said.