Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 31
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Social's growing stature in ad sales

Network ad execs say social media deals, though small, are now vital to advertisers

As ESPN ad sales executive Eric Johnson drove home from the Super Bowl to his suburban New York home in February, he looked to the New York City skyline and breathed a sigh of relief.

The Empire State Building was lit up in Seattle Seahawks colors, just as ESPN’s viewers had predicted a few days earlier as part of ESPN’s most popular Twitter-based ad sales campaign to date. Through a deal with Verizon, ESPN encouraged its viewers to use the social media platform to vote on the colors that would be used to light up the Empire State Building — either the Seahawks’ blue and green or the Broncos’ blue and orange.

“I was scared that after the Seahawk victory we were going to see a Denver Bronco Empire State Building,” Johnson said with a laugh. “The fans got it right.”

In the grand scheme of ESPN’s ad sales, which bring in billions of dollars a year, this kind of social media deal is virtually insignificant.

The Empire State Building shines with both Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks colors as part of an ESPN Twitter campaign before the Super Bowl. Ultimately, after Seattle’s victory, the building was lit up in Seahawks colors.
Photo by: Getty Images
But it is the type of deal that all networks and advertisers will be crafting over the next several weeks as they complete the upfront ad selling process.

Much like digital media sales a decade ago, social media sales are not even close to being big enough to stand on their own. But every network ad executive and ad buyer contacted for this story described social media as an expected component to larger ad sales deals. Advertisers are demanding social media extensions for their deals, and networks are happy to oblige.

“Social is what advertisers want,” said Carlos Deschapelles, senior vice president of Univision’s sports sales. “They ask about social and they ask about digital in every meeting.”

Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s president of global customer marketing and sales, is hearing the same things.

“Social is a big part of what we’re doing,” he said. “All of our packages have social elements to them.”

ESPN’s Super Bowl campaign with Verizon is a case in point. Verizon approached ESPN with the idea, which was part of the #WhosGonnaWin hashtag campaign it used during Super Bowl week. The company wanted ESPN to promote the Twitter vote across its platforms (TV, radio, online), with a live reveal planned during a “SportsCenter” segment two days before the Super Bowl that showed the Empire State Building in Seahawks colors.

The campaign resulted in about 140,000 Twitter votes, which was 63 percent higher than ESPN’s second-most-popular Twitter vote, around the BCS championship.

“That was a special program that was developed outside of Verizon’s overall upfront deal,” said Johnson, ESPN’s executive vice president of global multimedia sales. “Verizon’s been pretty aggressive with us in terms of trying new things.”

Because this type of social media advertising still is in its infancy, networks and advertisers are not sure how to place a value on it. Social media users typically are the young, upscale millennials that advertisers want to attract, network executives say. The question everybody has is how many retweets or Facebook votes equal a successful campaign.

“I can’t quantify a value to these types of sponsorships, but the numbers are on our side.” said Jon Diament, Turner

Sports’ executive vice president of ad sales and marketing. “As you add social to the platforms, the numbers just continue to grow.”

ESPN’s Johnson sounded a similar theme.

“It’s a way to attract engagement. Sometimes the shinier objects are the smaller objects in terms of how you put a sponsorship together,” he said. “We’re still learning as to what amount of retweets, likes or votes would be considered a good score. It certainly shows you something in real time about how people are attracted to a program that you put together for an advertiser.”

It’s clear that advertisers like the engagement that social media messages afford, and they are becoming more aggressive in finding ways to get their messages heard via social media networks.

So far the most successful campaigns have been focused on big, national sports events. For example, both ESPN and Univision are planning to participate in several social media campaigns around this summer’s World Cup. In fact, Univision expects these social media campaigns to turn into television programming for the channel.

“It’s almost like a reverse model from what people are used to over the last bunch of years,” Univision’s Deschapelles said. “Sponsors are going to use social via Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to push out to consumers promotional messages. We’ll aggregate it online and actually turn it into a special on linear television.”

Like traditional television and digital advertising, sponsors want to attach their messages to established media brands that can aggregate big audiences.

“Sports is so much more important with social media than entertainment,” said Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports, whose clients include Lowe’s, McDonald’s and Under Armour. “If you’ve got the right assets, you can become part of that social sports conversation in a relevant and entertaining way.”

For media companies, social media advertising presents another way to surround events, even when they don’t hold the official media rights to those events.

Two of Fox Sports’ most successful social media ad campaigns involved the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, to which CBS and Turner hold the television and digital rights.

Fox Sports provided branded highlights with New York Life, and it produced a custom video series called “Game Time with Christian Laettner” through a deal with Arby’s.

“It’s a way for us to drive an experience with our fans and, obviously, revenue for us, around something that we’re not a rights owner to,” said Marla Newman, senior vice president of sales for Fox Sports Digital. “Our overall social audience has grown, so we’ve got a bigger scale that we’re working with. Social’s grown in terms of we’re figuring out what works and how to do it in a more genuine way.”

Network executives largely are skeptical about the power social media networks have in affecting television ratings. But networks, sponsors and leagues are impressed with the amount of engaged fans who participate in social media.
Take Facebook’s Super Bowl experience, for example. The social media site reported about 50 million unique users and 185 million interactions around this year’s game. That’s a big and engaged fan base that media companies and sponsors want to be in front of.

“We really have to think about mobile experiences and at-home experiences. That’s not something we can do alone,” Facebook executive Bob Morgan said earlier this year at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. “We want to work with NBC or ESPN or Fox Sports.”

The social media ad campaign talked about most is Twitter’s Amplify advertising platform, which embeds video within tweets. Twitter co-sells Amplify alongside networks and leagues.

ESPN was the first to sign on early in 2013, when the network and Ford embedded BCS highlights in tweets. Turner Sports followed with March Madness deals with AT&T and Coke. Twitter has since signed Amplify deals with CBS for SEC football highlights and NBC for EPL soccer highlights. During this upfront season, the social media company is expanding its Amplify platform beyond sports, having signed deals with networks like The Weather Channel, Viacom and Headline News, among others.

“The main thing is that we have a year’s experience under our belt,” said Glenn Brown, senior director of Twitter Amplify. “We have a year’s worth of learnings and data and about 70 different programs that we’ve run, along with the more than 60 partners that we’ve signed.”

This year, Twitter has developed a video player that allows users to watch videos from their timeline with one click.
The NBA is using it during the playoffs. “It’s a huge improvement over last year,” Brown said. “We’re seeing that in the views and engagement.”

Network executives say the strategy of embedding highlights in tweets has been successful. But they also say social media extends far beyond what platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can provide.

“We can push out our own content with Bleacher Report and, where we don’t need a third party. It’s a combination,” said Turner’s Diament. “Social is much more than just Twitter and Facebook. Those are two huge companies, but the term ‘social’ is so much bigger than those two companies.”

As networks prepare for the upfront selling season, they are using the same message for potential social media sponsors that they use for potential television sponsors. Live sports is one of the last places that can aggregate big audiences. As an example, Diament pointed to Twitter’s trending topics, which are dominated by sports content during live games.

“We know that sports in social are consistently high when it comes to trending,” he said. “That is a really important thing for a marketer because you can plan around it. Trending can be challenging to predict. Sports allows you to predict what’s going to be popular and when it’s going to be popular.”

That popularity will lead to many more social media conversations for sports networks and their sponsors than ever before.

“It’s not as though there’s going to be one special product,” ESPN’s Johnson said. “There are many deals that we are doing that may have new components. It’s more a function of how we are going to continue to evolve our ability to stimulate the conversation around a sponsor and an owned event.”