Olympics Lessons For Social Media Strategists

London's Olympic Games are generating enormous interest on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. Look to the Games for new ways to bolster your own social media strategies.

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To say that social networking is playing a major role in the 2012 Olympic Games is an understatement. To name just a few examples, there's the official Olympics page on Facebook and the NBC Olympics page on Google+.

The athletes themselves--including popular U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte--are tweeting first-hand about their experiences. Time-shifting users are viewing events on YouTube. Social media updates are integrated into the broadcasts, and you've probably seen your own social networking contacts putting in their own 2 cents about the events. ("Holy crap! Men's gymnastics!!!" said one of mine Monday night.) Indeed, the bandwidth absorbed by a flood of spectator tweets caused a problem with the broadcast of a men's cycling event when broadcasters could not get precise GPS data.

So, what lessons can businesses learn from what might be called the first truly social Olympics?

"Businesses need to observe the behaviors expressed during the Olympics and then try to map those behaviors to the kinds of communications that they are producing in advertising and branded content," said Craig Elimeliah, digital director at RAPP, a multichannel marketing agency network. "The emotion around being part of a tribe, rooting for an athlete or a team, and the passion that resonates from a live event like the Olympics, can teach us a lot about how people engage with social media during the most extreme events in culture. [We can] then try to scale some of those learnings down to what they are doing to engage their own audiences and try to replicate some of those social behaviors so that they can capture the magic."

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William Rand, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and director of Smith's Center for Complexity in Business, said social networking is enriching the Olympic experience.

"For a fan at the Games, it brings great new ways to interact," said Rand. "Using Twitter hashtags, for instance, you can carry on a whole conversation with other people at the games while never leaving your seat. For instance, both #olympics2012 and #london2012 have very rich conversations. This allows you to exchange information and gain a richer insight into the event in front of you--it's like having your own color commentator but one that is the product of dozens or even hundreds of other attendees."

Elimeliah said businesses should be paying attention to this model. "By building in a social component such as a hashtag strategy into any type of branded content, brands are inviting users to start discussions and implying that the brand will also be participating, as well," he said. "This gives consumers the permission to react and speak freely to the brand and about the brand, with the understanding that the brand is both listening and may even respond back."

While social networking definitely played a role in the 2010 Winter Games, new platforms have gained popularity since then and social networking in general has increased in popularity and scope.

For example, Rand noted, Pinterest was available as a closed beta in 2010 but has played a big role in this year's Games. "There has been quite a bit of use of it during the London Olympics already--there are pinboards devoted to everything from teacher ideas for the classroom to statistical breakdowns of the games to cooking and craft suggestions, all focused on the Olympics."

The lesson for businesses is to stay on top of emerging platforms to determine the most effective platforms for engaging with customers and potential customers.

Elimeliah said it's important to look at the behaviors that people are expressing through social media tools in conjunction with other activities, especially television. "Most of the tools we had in 2010 are still very much relevant today, but they are now interlaid into various apps that are used as second-screen experiences. ... Today social apps are becoming a regular part of the television-viewing experience, especially sports."

Both Elimeliah and Rand believe that businesses should be paying attention to the ways in which social media is integrated into any large event.

"Social media is new enough that brands are still learning the best way to take advantage of it," said Rand. "But every event such as the Olympics brings us new and interesting understandings of social media marketing and use."

How has social affected your Olympic experience? What other lessons can we learn?

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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