Understanding the Olympian effort behind Tokyo 2020’s urgent digital transformation
While Olympics fanatics mourned the restriction of international visitors at Tokyo 2020, the IOC’s Christopher Carroll was brainstorming how to connect people around the globe to the Games through their favored devices. As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, he tells us about the “Olympics-sized task“ of completing a multi-year project within a year.
IOC director of digital engagement Christopher Carroll is talking to The Drum with less than a month to go before the torch is lit and the Games begin. We previously spoke to him after the launch of the IOC’s second ’One Year To Go’ campaign for Tokyo 2020. The delay was a blessing and a curse for Carroll, an experienced marketer with previous stints at Coca-Cola, Heineken and Under Armour.
The IOC snapped him up when it realized digital engagement would make or break the Games. Carroll was intent on building a ‘people-centric’ and ‘digital-led’ platform, so in the last year the team consolidated its web presences and numerous sites for the IOC for each individual Games, which in turn enabled ambitious activity and generated more valuable data.
Almost immediately, the IOC used the strength of the consolidated digital platform to “really promote and generate awareness of the Olympics”. The example included a historic first – fans could vote for the logo of the Milano Cortina 2026 Winter Olympics. In a year where fans may have felt most detached from the Games, Carroll and co brainstormed a new way to involve them.
With increased traffic to Olympics-owned properties, efforts are now under way to deliver personalized and localized content.
With a digital infrastructure in place to catapult content at the relevant people, the creative then had to land, and it does.
The latest campaign, ‘Stronger Together’, features Usain Bolt, Naomi Osaka, Andre Degrasse, Yusra Mardini, Nyjah Houston and Tony Hawk, and is designed to address the pains of the pandemic and incite frenzy around each individual sport.
The hero video voiceover says: “The world stood still, the future uncertain, we kept moving, competing against ghosts of ourselves, we know progress is not forged in the shadows... the world only moves forward when we move together.” Dramatic stuff – showing how the organizers, athletes and fans are smarting from the delay and anticipating the return.
You’ll notice the big names in each vignette – arguably the biggest in each field. Carroll says the work will spark athlete-to-athlete comms (A2A for short). “There’s nothing more powerful than the athletes. So we’re trying to be very authentic and ensure the Olympic values of friendship, respect and excellence are embedded in the communities from within. Tony Hawk’s film comes from him and the skateboarding community, and then we’ll go wider so there’s been some distribution that’s been very focused to the individual communities.”
The videos see a huge distribution – through the high-traffic Olympics.com, on its first-party social channels and via partnerships with Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and more. Rights-holding broadcasters will also run it, as will top-level partners such as P&G, Airbnb and Alibaba. The work will be everywhere.
Carroll adds: “Being able to tell the story of athletes’ preparation, their anxiety and their struggles helped us be a brand that’s full of humanity.”
But how is Carroll’s performance being measured? Like-for-like comparisons don’t exactly exist, especially for activities like the Virtual Games, which are a first.
Games and campaigns are compared historically for reach and engagement. For this year, the Olympics will be benchmarked against the likes of Euro 2020 and Wimbledon. And platform by platform, success will be compared too.
“Our aspiration is for this to be the most engaged global Olympics ever.”
For that to work, efforts to connect global fans with the events and athletes via digital must prove compelling.
This will mean a couple of firsts, such as beaming fan video to the athletes to let them know they’re being supported, and embedding athlete family moments into broadcasts.
And as Carroll says, “converting static media into digital media,” enabling social media connection between athletes and fans. Furthermore, it has partnered with more than National Olympic Committees to host these conversations and the creative on huge out-of-home advertising sites.
“We’re focused on engagement and repeated engagement versus just reach. It offers more than just eyeballs, which sure, is still important.”
But can the Olympics, after all of its setbacks and a congested summer of sports, stand out? Carroll welcomes the competition and leans into its advantages.
“We know there’ll be two points of interest. One, this will be the first time where people from all continents will congregate to compete in sports at once. That’s 206 National Olympic Committees.”
Next, as the Euros show, it proves easier to assemble viewers when the sport is linked to “national sports and passions”.
Carroll says: “There’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of interest in the Olympics, the unique global nature, but also that coming from that national pride and national sporting trust as well.”
With all these incoming eyes, the IOC will have the perfect Petri dish to work out the ways people will be viewing sports for years to come. Carroll’s ambition has been to “apply digital and technology with a purpose, not just for experimentation purposes,” and this will help separate the pipe dreams from the realities.
Michael R Payne, chairman of Payne Sports Media Strategies and previously director of marketing at the IOC between 1988 and 2004, looks at how the marketing challenge has changed since his time.
He says: “Most sports bodies and sponsors for that matter are still learning and researching new marketing approaches. The IOC’s launch of the Olympic Channel – now that it is evolving into an overall digital Olympic hub – is proving a major new platform to connect with Olympics fans around the world, to build specific communities and interact with them ... seeking their direct input, and letting fans become their own broadcasters. The potential is unlimited.”
The goal is not to lose sight of the main comms platform – the broadcasters paying for the privilege of sharing the Games – but in creating a coordinated digital ecosystem that builds on these efforts.
He notes that with the tech in place, new opportunities have emerged for sponsors too. Airbnb, for example, has more than 400 Olympics experiences to connect fans to through its app.
Be it broadcasters or the IOC itself, Payne concludes: “Everyone is reaching out to create a broader platform, partnering with other social media platforms to maximize audiences, and create cross-platform advertising and marketing opportunities.”