A look inside Unicef's digital control centre at the Commonwealth Games

Unicef's digital team in action at Glasgow 2014

Stuart Aitken, the IAB's editorial manager, tells us what he learned from helping Unicef's social media team during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

As John Barrowman emerged from under a kilt singing in a mock Scottish accent, I found myself with my head in my hands. As a Scotsman in the Unicef UK digital control centre, I wondered just how many people would be frantically reaching for their remote controls before the big moment came to text their donation.

I'd volunteered to help the Unicef digital team to effectively communicate the Put Children First message during the opening ceremony. When I arrived on the night I learned that my role would be helping to broadcast messages on Twitter explaining why Unicef was involved with the opening ceremony – and what people could do to help. I joined a dedicated and welcoming team of digital specialists managing and monitoring everything from Twitter to Instagram, Google+ to Facebook and live site analytics to real-time donation reporting.

As the evening began, Twitter was dominated by chat around Barrowman, Tunnock's teacakes, shortbread and Subo. Thankfully though the first act of the opening ceremony came to a close, and it was time to focus on more serious business.

As the teams were led out, grouped by their continents, Unicef's involvement in the ceremony became ever more clear. A video of the charity's work in each continent was played before the teams entered, with more detail and behind the scenes stories being tweeted simultaneously, allowing the multi-screening viewers access to additional information and an extra layer of engagement.

All the while discussion around the #putchildrenfirst hashtag was building on Twitter, with increasing engagement with Unicef being handled by a dedicated team responding to direct messages and influential tweeters.

All of this activity was designed to build to what was for Unicef the centrepiece of the ceremony – the moment when Unicef ambassadors Sir Chris Hoy and James McAvoy would reveal live on air the number for people to text their donations.

As expected, the most successful tweet of the night was an image of the Put Children First message displayed in the stadium - tweeted at the moment that the text donation number was revealed.

To date it's been re-tweeted 1,221 times. It helped cause a huge spike in traffic (as can be seen by @spiral’s vine below) and showed just how powerful Twitter can be when combined with a huge TV event – and celebrity endorsement.

It's the embodiment of much of what Twitter has been saying for the last year or so about the power of Twitter in conjunction with large traditional TV 'water cooler' moments. As the IAB’s recent RealView research project showed, 66 per cent of people use an additional connected device whilst watching TV. This example shows how you can effectively engage with this audience.

What was remarkable about this moment of the ceremony is that no matter how polarising John Barrowman, the Loch Ness monster, the teacakes, the tartan and the bagpipes were, by the end it didn't matter. Ultimately it felt like the event had collected around a central message to put children first. Unicef had managed to give real meaning to the event, elevating it beyond being simply a celebration of Irn-Bru and shortbread. There is no doubt that Twitter helped to amplify that message. And being even a very small part in that process was a very humbling experience.

Yes there are key learnings for brands to take away from this event. But for now let's just focus on the fact that, done well, Twitter and other social channels can help you amplify the messages you want to communicate. In an always-on environment, social media can help deliver incredible results. In the case of Unicef, £2.5m was raised in the UK via text donations alone, within just one hour.

The images that we saw after the event of people with their phones aloft as one, not taking selfies but instead donating £5, was a truly powerful one – and one which will not be forgotten in a hurry.

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