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Why Viewers Could Soon Control Super Bowl Ads

Tweets and other social media comments are about to drive real-time changes in programming.

  • by David Talbot
  • February 2, 2012
  • Mitt tweet: ABC News producers analyzed real-time social media reactions to two GOP debates—including a spike in tweets when Mitt Romney challenged Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet.

During this Sunday’s Super Bowl, a record five million viewers are expected to tweet or make other social media comments—not just about the game, but also about the many beer, snack, and car ads that are integral to the annual sports and entertainment ritual.

This activity—up from 900,000 people making Super Bowl posts during last year’s game—is now happening at such a vast scale that executives in television, broadcast news, and advertising expect analytics of the comments to start shaping advertising choices—and even the direction of news coverage—in near real-time.

By the time next year’s Super Bowl rolls around, advertisers—poring over social media analytics of their ads—are likely to replace less-liked versions of ads with better-rated ones as the game goes on. “Advertisers will be looking for immediate feedback to change [advertising] copy rotations later in the game,” says Kate Sirkin, the global research director of Starcom MediaVest Group, an ad agency in New York.

Even social media feedback on things happening in the game could cause an adjustment. “You make a couple of versions of the ad, and different versions can run either depending on feedback by viewers to the ad, or real-time feedback to the game itself,” she says. “It speaks to the culture of the nation—it’s saying, ‘We’re listening to you, America, and giving you the stuff that you want.’ “

The teams themselves will drive some of this buzz from their own websites, according to a new analysis by the analytics company Nielsen.

On Sunday, Bluefin Labs, a social media analytics company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, expects to publicly unveil its ad-specific analytics technology after the Super Bowl. (To date, the company has only offered advertising analytics privately to clients, but it will make Super Bowl analytics public on game night.)

Discussion of television shows and ads on social media is surging. For example, the most recent premiere of The Bachelor garnered 80,528 comments, up from 13,966 the previous year; the numbers for Jersey Shore were 410,230 and 69,829. The most commented-upon TV event ever was the MTV Music Video Awards last year, at which Beyonce revealed her pregnancy—this triggered 3.1 million comments.

This year’s Super Bowl ads cost, on average, $3.5 million. Anheuser-Busch alone has six different ads running during the game. “By the third quarter, we can see whether the commercials are getting similar, more or less, or different kinds of reactions than the ones earlier in the game,” says Tom Thai, vice president for marketing and business development at Bluefin. “By the end of the game, I’ll be able to shoot out basically the top-rated Super Bowl ads in terms of social media conversation.”

Bluefin captures more than 8,000 television shows on 200 networks—including the ads—and tracks social medial response to both programming and individual ad airings. (Most such comments are made on Twitter.) It also keeps track of about 10 million people who have commented on something on TV at least once per three months, to track the various things that inspire them.

ABC News, which organized the GOP debates in Iowa and New Hampshire, not only ran stories the next day discussing the responses on Twitter and elsewhere, but also monitored social media responses from a production pit behind the debate moderator on the night of the debate itself. Bluefin had provided the producers some live tidbits. A spokesman says ABC is in the early stages of working on ways to work such real-time feedback into its news broadcasts.

News organizations and advertisers are likely to start making real-time changes in response to social media in the near future, says Mike Proulx, senior vice president and director of social media at Hill Holliday, an ad agency in Boston. “We are rapidly moving toward a television world where the real-time Web will affect programming. We’re already seeing real-time tweets and Facebook posts integrated into live television events, and we’re just a stone’s throw away from a time when dynamic ad technology converges with television’s social media back channel,” he says.

Of course, advertisers are also starting to release their ads before the game, hoping to get people to watch and then share. For example, Volkswagen has gotten considerable social media traffic for an online teaser—of dogs barking out the Star Wars’ Imperial March theme—leading up to a presumed game-day reprise of its well-received ad last year featuring a boy in a Darth Vader costume.

And on game day, teams of employees from ad agencies will try to fuel the social media comments by replying to viewers’ posts and directing them to Facebook pages and online versions of their ads. 

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