Big Ideas

Going for the Gold

NBC Sports Group CMO John Miller says social engagement can return impressive—even unprecedented—marketing results.

by Aaron Lazenby

The NBC Sports Group’s broadcast of the 2012 London Olympic Games returned a record number of viewers for its parent company, NBC Universal. But it wasn’t just the number of eyeballs glued to the 17-day international sporting event that made it a major success—the number of active voices engaged in social media channels was also one for the record books.

More than 217 million television viewers and 159.3 million video streams were tuned to competitions such as swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and volleyball (among many others), representing a 12 percent increase over the 2008 broadcast from Beijing, China, and making the London Olympics the most-watched television event in US history.

But according to John Miller, chief marketing officer (CMO) of NBC Sports Group, the organization’s aggressive social media strategy also helped spark more than 83 million social comments during the London games. Overall, the marketing activity around NBC’s Olympic coverage generated more social conversation than the 2012 Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Super Bowl, and all seven games of the 2011 World Series—combined.

Here, Profit talks to Miller about television consumers’ changing expectations, what marketers need to understand about social media, and the role Oracle Social Marketing Cloud Service, Oracle’s cloud-based social marketing and engagement platform, played in making NBC’s Olympic coverage a gold medal success.

jmiller headshot

Profit: How are social and mobile technologies changing your role as CMO?

Miller: When I took over marketing for NBC, there were basically just TV channels. Cable networks were relatively small. For marketing you had your own airtime—which was the valuable promotional resource—and you did a little bit of radio and ads in TV Guide and you called it a day. Back then, my motto was, “It’s the ratings, stupid.” That no longer really applies. Now it’s, “Never stop learning.” The world continually changes, and it’s good to change with it. Learning keeps you interested, as well as effective.

Today, people are choosing to watch television and sporting events in all sorts of different ways. Marketers are dealing in a nonlinear experience, trying to figure out the best way to communicate to the American public that a show or a sports franchise or even a new network exists and how to find it.

Social activity has clearly become something that any CMO needs to focus in on, because it creates a sharing and a conversation that exists among virtually every demographic. Social allows you to get the word out about your product in a very cost-effective way and allows you to have a direct conversation with your consumer, which is probably the most valuable thing for any growing business. Also, today’s CFOs need to understand that social is not necessarily a very expensive piece of the budget, but it is becoming a vital one.

Profit: What do you think are the keys to a successful social media campaign?

Miller: Start with a very good product. Word about a good product gets around, and in this way, social media can do a significant amount of your advertising and marketing for you.

Of course, social conversation can also kill a bad product pretty quickly. You can advertise and you can put spins on your product and shape and color things a certain way, but social media will pretty much bring you back to center quickly. In this way, social media can be a canary in the coal mine. If all of a sudden marketers see a significant amount of negative social activity, they can go back to the product people and say, “We have an issue. We need to fix it.”

If you’ve made a mistake, responding to issues quickly and communicating to the public through social tools will earn you positive marks. Don’t try to cover things up. Social media is an open exchange. And if you try to play the system, you do that at your own peril.


NBC Sports Group

Location: New York, New York

Industry: Media

Employees: 500

Oracle products: Oracle Social Marketing Cloud Service

John Miller

Chief Marketing Officer

Length of tenure: 34 years at NBC

Education: BS in business administration, Miami University

Personal quote/mantra: “Always keep learning.”


Profit: How did NBC Sports begin its relationship with Oracle Social Marketing Cloud Service?

Miller: It started with our coverage of the National Hockey League [NHL]. Before this year, we had just one person handling social activity for the NHL on NBC. We knew we needed some additional help because frankly we were novices in this area.

We originally called upon Vitrue [acquired by Oracle in May 2012] because they had consulted with a lot of the Fortune 500 companies. We hired them to be a one-stop shop for our NHL coverage; Vitrue’s cloud-based social marketing platform [now Oracle Social Marketing Cloud Service] allowed us to engage customers across channels, including Facebook and YouTube, all through one interface. Their team helped us create in-game integrations and offered us advice that helped us ramp up quickly.

After about four or five months, they came back to us with a significant amount of analytics. They looked at where we were in the social space and how was trending versus some of the other competing sports properties. The Vitrue team recommended that we become more proactive about our social presence across our groups, including NBC Sports, Sunday Night Football, NHL on NBC, the Golf Channel, and ultimately the Olympics.

We were not budgeted for expanding our social presence for this calendar year, so we asked Vitrue to provide a guideline for what kind of return on investment we could expect. They gave us a three-step plan: The first one was that we would get referrals back to the Website that we could monetize. Next, if we got enough traffic, we could sell sponsorship. And finally, if social was effective enough, it could affect ratings.

All three have proven to be true. Most notably, we saw high double-digit gains in ratings among kids and teens during the Olympics. Clearly, we were speaking to them in places where they talked to each other. And we were speaking to them on devices that they used. And the combination of those things brought a significant lift to the ratings of the Olympics in London.

Profit: What social activities did you target at the Olympics?

Miller: First, we made social a part of the broadcast itself. During the course of the games, we had Ryan Seacrest host a report every couple of days in prime time about what topics were trending on Twitter and active on Facebook, what the athletes were talking about, and what the American public was talking about in relation to the Olympics.

We reached out to athletes and we created a relationship with Twitter, so that they could help curate our coverage. Plus, the athletes’ tweets showed up on our site. Most of the athletes are part of the age demographic that uses social media the most, so we didn’t have to do too much except create a forum for the conversation, track it, and let our audience know that it was happening.

Our goal was to make the olympics the most social event in television history.”

Our goal was to make the Olympics the most social event in television history. [Oracle Social Marketing Cloud Service] was very useful in making sure that we could cast the widest possible net, helping us drive interaction on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other channels. When you have 2 billion page views and more than 180 million Facebook comments about the Olympics, you know that you made some mark.

Profit: What lessons will you take with you moving forward?

Miller: I think one thing is clear: people will choose how to view programs in their own way. And they would like to have the choice to watch in as many places as they can, and they want streaming to be as easy to access as possible.

For the first time ever, viewers could stream and see live almost every moment of the Olympics. We had up to 40 continuous feeds, and viewers could stream nearly 3,600 hours live. I think that drove our ratings among young people.

Also, the fact that the Olympics could be seen on television, on the laptop or PC, on tablet, and on mobile had a significant positive influence. The more ways you offer people to watch, the more they seem to watch. People who were able to stream it actually became more interested to watch it when it was televised later on.

As a matter of fact, people who watched on one device, most likely a television, watched the Olympics for about four hours a day. Those who used two devices, such as a television and a mobile device, laptop, or tablet, watched about five. With three devices, viewership went up to six hours. And people who watched on four different devices consumed more than eight hours of Olympics.

Social is another reason the prime-time Olympics coverage did so well. Even though the broadcast was delayed for US audiences due to the London time zone, people had talked about it on Facebook and Twitter and said, “You gotta see it.” On the West Coast of the United States, where people had the most time to learn results before prime-time coverage, ratings were 20 percent higher than on the East Coast.

Technology continues to march on, and I can’t say that I know exactly what the television landscape will look like for the 2014 or 2016 Olympics. But I will say that we had a revolution between 2008 and 2012 as the social conversation became big enough to reach a mass audience in London.

For the next Olympics, it will be more evolutionary than revolutionary as these conversations become more common and widely distributed.

Photography by Shutterstock