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Unusual Olympics put digital, mobile marketing tactics to the test

The Summer Olympics in Tokyo are anything but business as usual, with marketers putting digital and omnichannel tactics to the test as they try to engage viewers whose interest in the event could be dwindling. Nearly half of surveyed U.S. consumers (45%) were not looking forward to the games ahead of their kickoff late last week, according to Zeta Global findings, meaning brands will need to put in more legwork on the innovation front to stand out.

Meanwhile, Olympics partners are contending with serious disruptions — including the absence of live spectators amid climbing coronavirus fears  that only emphasize the need for a stronger online presence, according to analysts. Toyota, a major sponsor, last week pulled the plug on its Olympics advertising in Japan due to COVID-19 concerns, though it is sticking to its U.S. marketing plans, the games’ host network NBCUniversal told Deadline.  

The bigger focus on non-linear media is in some ways a natural evolution of where the industry has shifted since the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Over the past three years, on-demand streaming habits have changed the way marketers approach TV, while advancements in 5G networks and other technology compel brands to find novel ways to meet mobile-minded consumers. But the pandemic has enshrined many of these tactics as essential for marketers and media owners, with NBCUniversal broadcasting some of this summer’s games — which bear the moniker of “Tokyo 2020” after being postponed last year — on its fledgling Peacock platform.

“[It] is only to be expected that every Olympics will see brands reshuffle their outreach to adapt to the formats with the greatest momentum,” said Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

To provide meaningful experiences, marketers have to entertain new priorities when planning their media strategies. These considerations have seen brands shifting their focus from piecemeal ad buys with an emphasis on linear TV to centralized campaigns across a variety of growing channels.

“Most brands were not focused on integrated marketing plans […] until this year,” said Crystal Eastman, CMO of Zeta Global. “Now, advertisers are understanding that consumers are looking to all of these different mediums for streaming content, and are no longer dependent on the live TV broadcasts.”

Digital will carry pandemic burden

While planning a media strategy for a global competition is difficult in any year, doing so during a pandemic presents a raft of unique challenges. To ease some of this difficulty, experts foresee marketers leaning into the versatility of digital channels.

Brands are activating digital in a variety of ways. Mobile-first programming, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tokyo 2020 Media Center, is helping to consolidate highlights and news from the games in one place so fans can periodically check on their devices. With 28% of U.S. viewers planning to watch the games through their phones, mobile is a vastly different touch point than it was during the last Olympics, even now rivaling cable TV (33%) in a way that reflects changing consumer habits, per Zeta Global’s Eastman.

“This is a dynamic we would not have seen in 2018,” Eastman said. “Everybody didn’t have as powerful of a device then, we didn’t have 5G then.”

Digital out-of-home (DOOH) placements are also up 400% compared to prior plans last year, per Eastman. Such activations indicate that despite the bans on live spectators, brands are keeping in mind that July 2021 is not July 2020 and are therefore deploying DOOH advertising to reach consumers venturing outside of their homes.

While overall interest in the games is down, Gen Z and millennial audiences are showing more excitement than any other demographic, per Zeta Global data. Considering these younger consumers tend to use digital platforms more than older cohorts, marketers have more reason to activate on those channels.

Xfinity, for example, launched a challenge on TikTok encouraging creators to post their own interpretation of the Olympics’ anthem, “Bugler’s Dream.” The campaign taps influencers and athletes to drive engagement through the app. Similarly, NBC has partnered with Snapchat, Twitch and Twitter to offer short-form, supplementary content on the games, allowing brands marketing through NBC to reach those mobile-minded consumers.

“Millennials and Gen Z have been out and about [during the pandemic]…” Eastman said. “They’re ready for some bingeing and entertainment versus older generations [who] probably just left their couches for the first time.”

Omnichannel ecosystem

In previous Olympics, creating an integrated marketing experience required a piecemeal approach through multiple buys across various sellers. Advancements in marketing tech have evolved these efforts, however, and this year marketers have been able to develop their strategies through a more centralized media buying process.

“[It’s] not all about digital, it’s about creating a web of experiences around these games,” said Forrester’s Chatterjee.

NBCUniversal has tried to enable such a web by boosting One Platform, its omnichannel media buying ecosystem. Earlier this month, the company tapped ad tech company Innovid to manage third-party ads across its CTV apps as well as provide measurement and creative flexibility for advertisers.

“Marketers are thinking a lot more in an omnichannel way,” said Tal Chalozin, chief technology officer and co-founder of Innovid. “[They’re] buying social media…[advertising] on television or streaming media, and the general feeling and expectation by marketers is the ability to orchestrate everything centralized.”

Agility is another benefit of launching an omnichannel media strategy. For the Olympics in particular, where brands have to advertise around an unpredictable series of events, the ability to change things quickly and in an organized way could be advantageous, per Chalozin.

Further strengthening NBCUniversal’s offering is its recent adoption of Ad-ID, an advertising identity solution developed by the American Association for Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. The tool, which NBCUniversal is testing during the Tokyo Olympics, uses unique identifiers to help advertisers reduce ad frequency and deliver more high-quality, targeted campaigns. It also uses increasingly popular contextual capabilities to move with audiences rather than individuals.

These updates to NBCUniversal’s ecosystem may help marketers stay on top of their campaigns, but for an Olympics in which viewers will be seeing ads from more brands than ever, staying organized across channels could be vital.

“Everything needs to be connected to a centralized place,” said Chalozin. “Think about [it] almost like an octopus with a lot of tentacles that are applied everywhere. This is part of our vision.”

Rise of CTV

A channel that has been a particular standout for marketers this year is connected TV (CTV).

In 2018, CTV was still a relatively nascent offering and made up only a fraction of marketers’ spend. But in the time since, changes in consumer habits — particularly mass linear TV cord-cutting — have caused a boom in the industry, leading marketers to increase their spending on streaming platforms 22% over the past year while learning how to improve their audience addressability, per an Interactive Advertising Bureau study. CTV growth was faster than gains in both mobile video (4%) and desktop video (3%).

For this year’s games, marketers interested in CTV are arriving with a much better understanding of their potential audiences and how increases in viewership affect their bottom lines, Chalozin said.

These insights mostly pertain to advantages in personalization afforded by CTV, which platforms are able to provide via insights on first-party data. Moreover, as platforms have diversified their selection of content, they have also grown their variety of data that can be useful to marketers’ targeting decisions. 

Sports is one of the newest genres making its way into CTV, per Chalozin, which makes this Olympics a particularly significant opportunity for marketers to reach new cord-cutting consumers in the space.

Another reason why marketers are implementing CTV at scale into their Olympics media strategies is advantages in session length.

“Mobile is not going away, obviously, with sources like Snapchat and TikTok,” Chalozin said. “But sessions of watching HBO or Hulu or Peacock or any of those services — the session length is larger and longer.”

This consumer habit could be especially pertinent to the sporting events of the Olympics, which tend to be less snackable in duration and thus require longer viewing sessions from consumers.

“When you spend more time on connected television on one of those services, you spend less time in other places,” Chalozin said. “This is why marketers’ dollars are following [CTV]. They’re essentially following eyeballs.”

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