Super Bowl: Buzz or Blues?

By Pete Blackshaw

In this new year, two issues are already gaining traction: the price of Super Bowl ads and the use of the word “accountability” in marketing circles.

Super Bowl ads now cost $2.4 million for a 30-second spot, up nearly 7 percent from last year’s price. The halftime show alone will cost sponsor Ameriquest Mortgage a whopping $15 million, up 50 percent from what America Online paid in 2004.

Is it worth it? What if the “Accountability Cops” come knocking on the door?

We know, with statistical certainty, a Super Bowl ad buys an unprecedented number of guaranteed advertising impressions. But that’s not the only factor prying open advertisers’ wallets.

Indeed, as we keep hearing from ad agencies, media buyers, and marketers themselves, Super Bowl ads are an event in and of themselves. Such branded entertainment, the logic goes, not only keeps easily distracted viewers more attentive but also offers the potential to create a buzz-building water-cooler effect.

Consumer-Generated Media as Auditor

Fine and dandy — but how do we quantify “water cooler”? Buzz can be fleeting and ephemeral. We can’t be too touchy-feely here, not with all the righteous talk about accountability.

The Web has a vast and exploding body of what I term “consumer-generated media” (CGM). Little known to advertisers and CMOs is the fact it can be used as a de facto auditor of advertising effectiveness and word of mouth. Consumers increasingly leave a digital trail, a “brand residue,” in venues where they can easily and effortlessly express themselves: message boards, forums, online communities, social-network sites, and especially blogs.

Basically, the Web is a water cooler on steroids. It’s fortified by megaphones and surrounded by a focus group window marketers can observe and learn through. A trail of brand-influenced commentary can be quantified, organized, emotionally deconstructed, and packaged, just as we track sales or count clicks.

Through the return-on-investment (ROI) lens, the more favorable CGM a brand receives, the more the average cost per impression goes down.

If buzz is negative and viral, it’s a completely different story. Advertisers who stretch product claims, for instance, are often outed. The ensuing CGM commentary and exposure through search results can bring a brand down faster than you can say “buzz.” Blogs have intensified this reality.

Did Someone Say “Accountability”?

With millions of consumers buzzing about all aspects of the Super Bowl, we can begin to answer some important questions: Did my copy generate buzz? Was it positive? Where was it discussed, and by whom? What specifically did viewers like? Was the ad viral, and, if so, what prompted the desire to share? If I didn’t receive squat on the buzz front, why, and is it time to have a heart-to-heart with my agency?

Several years back, Reebok’s Terry Tate Office Linebacker campaign reaped a massive harvest of CGM from the Super Bowl ad, aided in large measure by superb cross-channel marketing.

Last year, by contrast, was a total buzz kill. Janet Jackson’s costume escapade cannibalized all the buzz. Indeed, the cost of the halftime show’s “wardrobe malfunction” went beyond the FCC fine and reprimand. At $2.2 million for a 2004 ad, advertisers got their promised “paid” impressions. But the water cooler was effectively drained.

Priming the Buzz for 2005: What Can Marketers Do?

Will consumers buzz this year? We certainly know more consumers are broadband- and wireless-enabled than ever before. Further, more consumers than ever multitask while watching TV. Sport enthusiast sites and fantasy leagues, not to mention blogs, have seen enormous growth. So, the intuitive answer is a big yes.

Most big advertisers don’t realize key levers of word-of-mouth management are right under their noses. Though creative alone is the most critical driver of buzz potential, there are specific tactics and strategies to convert offline copy into free media heaven. Here’s a short list of must-dos before you sign that $2.4 million Super Bowl check:

– Prime the Web site. More consumers than ever toggle over to brand Web sites while watching TV. Be ready for them! In particular, ensure the ad is readily available on the home page, front and center. Make it available in all major formats: QuickTime, Windows, and Flash.

– Encourage, enable, and empower the pass-along. Make it really easy to share the ad with others. I recently wrote an e-mail to Budweiser asking how I could see its ad; Bud supplied a painfully unsatisfactory, runaround answer. They should have replied, “Be sure to visit our site on game day.”

– Feed the FAQ and site search engines. Make absolutely certain the brand search engine team knows you’re advertising on the Super Bowl. You’ll look stupid if the search engine fires blanks. Same applies to your FAQ engine team. Last year, Procter & Gamble’s Charmin brand ran a much-celebrated Super Bowl ad, but there was precious little content anywhere on the site acknowledging it. Force those silos to talk!

– Encourage ad feedback and build a database. You don’t need to troll message boards to find influencers. Influencers love to give feedback, so exploit their desire to speak out about your ad. These are the same CGM-creating folks who hang out on boards and blogs, so you’ll want them in your database for future redeployment. Brands that make consumers feel important and respected drive deeper loyalty and ultimately increase buzz.

– Intercept the consumer’s next step. Think critically about how consumers behave online. Many consumers go directly to search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo!) to find your ad. Use paid search to direct them to the right place. Sports enthusiasts naturally go to fan sites. Are you buying ad impressions in those area?

The last critical step comes after the game. Be sure to discuss with your agency what ultimately transpired on the buzz front. Hold the agency accountable for the discussion. Dissect the consumer comments, internal and external, and work through a better plan for the following year. Be sure to use the data next time you negotiate with the NFL or the broadcast network. Data are power.

Data also make you more accountable, especially when it’s coming straight from the consumer.