Is social media also a waste of time for sports marketers?

Anyone who claims that social media is “mostly a waste of time for marketers” is bound to generate some headlines. The claim was made by highly respected academic and award winning columnist, Mark Ritson in a well-delivered address to delegates at the World Marketing and Sales Forum in January this year.

Ritson expressed his amazement at the disproportionate hullabaloo from the marketing industry which surrounded Oreo’s famous “You can dunk in the dark” tweet (made during the 2013 Super Bowl) on account of the tweet’s limited penetration of Orea’s customer base (estimated by him to be 0.02%). He compares this with Budweiser, whose more “traditional” approach of buying airtime during the show on CBS to broadcast 60 seconds of “beautiful, brand-specific, magic” (in the form of their “Clydesdales Brotherhood” spot shown below) passed with comparatively little fan fair.

Ritson summed up his underlying proposition with the statement, “it’s a ‘social’ media, not a ‘brand communication’ media”.

For me, Ritson’s comparison of the reach of Oreo’s tweet (64,300) versus a TV audience of 50 million watching the Bud TV ad misses the mark as it is not based on any assessment of relative ROI or return on objectives. I do accept that research shows that social media users have a relatively limited appetite for the official social media accounts of brands. But just because most brands can’t generate sizeable followings on their official accounts doesn’t make social media marketing “mostly a waste of time” for them.

Brand communication on social is not confined to brands official channels. The viral nature of the Oreo tweet drove unimaginable reach for the brand particularly in the US (try a google search to see some of the far reaching and universally positive reporting) and no doubt strengthened its brand association with the most sought after sports property in the US.

Social media’s power to amplify branded content, particularly topical content like Super Bowl ads, is fundamental to the mediums value to marketers. Research presented by Ritson shows the second most important reason for using social networking sites after keeping in touch with friends and family is “to share photos and videos”.

At an estimated cost today of USD4.5 million for a 30 second Super Bowl spot, most advertisers see the huge investment not as an end-game, but as a catalyst for a social and digital media engagement campaign. In the 12 months since its debut, Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” spot from the 2014 Super Bowl (below) has been viewed over 56 million times on Budweiser’s You Tube channel (more eyeballs than Budweiser paid to reach on TV during the 2013 Super Bowl!).

The lack of interest in brands official social media accounts highlights an opportunity for sports property owners. Events, clubs, leagues and athletes are increasingly generating large social media followings. They can drive value for sponsors by understanding the conversations that sponsors want to have with their property’s fans on social and provide the content and marketing assets to enable the sponsor to be at the heart of these conversations.

Property holders also need to leverage the “endorsement” value that sponsors see in their content being featured on the property owners official platforms. Consider the value official sponsors such as Nike get from Christiano Ronaldo’s Facebook page (100 million+ page likes) or even Budweiser’s man of the match activation got from being supported by the official 2014 FIFA World Cup Twitter account (3 million + followers).

The fact that the official social media accounts of brands are not widely followed is therefore only part of the story and presents an opportunity for sports properties to be a conduit for brands to tap and engage the social media audience. Of course, sports property owners need to be aware that, from a commercial perspective, social media brings with it many challenges. Not least that it offers fertile ground for ambush marketing (London 2012 was perhaps the first major event where case numbers reflected this).

Social media is definitely not an effective marketing tool for all brands and it is over-hyped. Ritson is right that we need to be more objective and less sensationalist when it comes to social media marketing. But suggesting social media is ‘mostly’ a waste of time for marketers is just as sensationalist as the Oreo-headline writers Ritson was criticising.

Here’s a link to Mark Ritson’s address:



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