And for my next trick … Farewell to the Olympics

I started writing this on August 27th somewhere over Siberia, between the Patom and Aldan Plateaus, the Verkhoyanskiy Mountains somewhere ahead and to starboard, the line on the SkyMap showing China receding astern at 550 miles per hour.

With the taiga unrolling below me, and the Arctic Ocean somewhere ahead, I had ten uninterrupted hours to take stock of the past 20 days, photos to sort, thank you notes to write, but a blog post seemed too short and frivolous a thing to express what could be, in hindsight someday, the most interesting and important three weeks in my life.

So I watched a movie instead and procrastinated about this for about a solid month.

Not to be portentous and mawkish by using works like “portentous” and “mawkish,” but I was flying away from the scene of a very amazing event, one familiar to the world from their televisions, but one that I walked through, sweated on, wrinkled my nose at, and sleepwalked through for three very long weeks. I met greatness, witnessed excellence, saw a country make its debut on the world’s stage, drank too much, laughed till I ached, and felt like weeping on multiple occasions when too much jet lag and not enough exercise ganged up to strip my nerves raw. I fought the forces of stupidity, tried to stand tall against censorship, threw a massive tech support temper tantrum, spent $5 million in one week and ate things that I hope I never eat again. I got lost in a city I fell in love with, and started to believe I was getting to know on the very day I had to leave.

And I got to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the top of my lungs in the middle of 1,000 grinning Chinese fans in the finish line grandstand at the Shunyi Water Park after the USA Women’s Eight won gold in rowing.

So I have that going for me.

The athletes were the most unforgettable aspect of the experience. As a good friend said to me in an instant message while delivering some photography advice: “focus on people, they are much more interesting than landscapes.” Well, yes. I took pictures of the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube, this building and that monument, but it was the Japanese baseball cheerleaders with their bleached reddish hair, the countryside Chinese standing agape in Tien’amen Square before the Forbidden City and the chubby cheeked portrait of Mao, the weightlifter playing beer pong, the celebrities, the fox-faced Russian fans climbing into their souped up Audi A-8s with the cartoon bear logo of Club Bosco on the windows … but it was the athletes that stood out in the middle of the noise and the chatter about sponsorships, the broadcast rights, the jockeying for who would host the 2016 Games.

There is an unseen light that surrounds an Olympian, a buzz that says it is a good thing to be twenty years old, in perfect physical condition, and set free in Beijing during the month of August. On the subway from the Korea-Cuba baseball game – the last baseball game – there some unnamed rower from the US lightweight men’s four told us about not making the finals, but rowing in the petite finals. “Congratulations,” I told him. “For making it here.” He looked a bit surprised, I guess figuring it was hollow grandmotherly praise to be told “You played and that’s what counts” but then, when I told him I knew the sport, that I empathized with the agony of surviving 2,000 meters, he brightened up and realized to his surprise that the world does care about an Olympian, medal or not.

For the last 12 months I’ve worked with a great team to deliver what we hoped would be a decent online experience around Lenovo’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games. That experience started in the winter of 2007, starting taking shape in July of that year, but didn’t really kick off until the torch started moving through great controversy in London and Paris last Spring.

The plan should familiar to readers of this blog. It was this: take advantage of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to permit athletes to blog during the 2008 Games and equip as many as possible with Lenovo computers and digital video cameras. Recruit the athletes on the basis of their proclivity to blog, and their passion to talk about what they do. This was not a typical “sponsor-the-medalist” play where agents got involved, contracts executed, and the athlete would be expected to be a spokesman for the brand. This was a fairly arms length, handshake deal where the athlete was given a PC and asked, not required, to put a badge on their blog (not Lenovo’s blog) indicating their participation in the program. The athletes were under no obligation to blog, their blogging was not subject to Lenovo’s review, and the only requirements in place were those dictated by the IOC in its guidelines to athletes.

What we did was aggregate, or combine in one place, all the athlete blogs by compiling all the feeds from those blogs on a single page. That page allowed readers to select athletes by country, sport, or language. It showed a preview of the post, carried links to biographies of the bloggers, and directly linked out to the athletes’ blogs. The page carried a small tile that indicated the athletes were using IdeaPads and ThinkPads as part of the program, as well as a comarketing nod to our partners at Intel. There were no ads on the page, no calls to buy now, and the only editorializing on our part was a box at the top of the page that acted as a news “box” to promote a blogger or specific post.

We engaged Ogilvy Public Relation’s 360 Digital Influence Project, a Washington, D.C. based team led by John Bell and Rohit Bhargava. John and I launched Lenovo’s first corporate blog, Design Matters, in the spring of 2006, so it was a natural fit to turn to John in December 2007 to seek his team’s assistance in bringing our blogging program to life.

We set a target of recruiting 100 bloggers by June 2008 and specified to the Ogilvy team that we wanted bloggers who would otherwise not receive a lot of attention from the mainstream sporting press, who represented more “obscure” sports, and who either had a blog, or who had the potential to launch and tend to a blog despite the pressure of competing. I personally recruited the first blogger – Australian rower Drew Ginn – as I had been reading his blog for over a year having a keen interest in both the sport and the phenomenon of a blogging elite athlete. I phoned Drew over Skype, described the program, and was delighted when he agreed to participate. With him as our paradigm – a champion (he won a gold medal in Athens), a technically adept explorer (Drew is all over YouTube, del.icio.us, Skype and Blogger), and a charismatic writer – Ogilvy then went forth and rapidly recruited 99 more athletes from 25 countries representing 27 of the 32 Olympic sports.

On the Lenovo side, three people put in extremely long hours pulling the project together. Alan White was the project manager and the first person I want to thank because he brought a keen focus on executing the program, making sure it happened on time, under budget, and was communicated appropriately. His expertise in what some have called “marketing 2.0” is now immense, and I can’t express loudly enough how much of Lenovo’s Olympic success online is because of Alan.

Technically and strategically Lenovo is blessed to have Esteban Agustin Panzeri driving its social media marketing programs. Esteban is a polymath with incredibly prescient instincts about everything from blogging tools to design. He is sysadmin, analyst, coder and a blogger himself. What you see at http://summergames.lenovo.com is all Esteban.

Getting 100 PCs and FlipCams personalized and delivered to 100 athletes is the personification of a logistical nightmare, but Tim Supples made it happen. His attention to detail insured the athletes were happy, taken care of, and given the support they needed.

On the ground in Beijing, Sheji Ho and Kevin Walker in our International iLounge (think Internet café) in the Athlete Village provided on the spot support and assistance to any athlete – not just the 100 athlete bloggers – who walked through their doors. They were the front line of tech support when bloggers couldn’t post to their blogs, or needed assistance with their new notebooks. Bob Page on our communications team provided great promotional support, helping us share the story with the press and calming me down with sage advice and counsel when certain bureaucracies began to get under my skin. Yan An in Beijing was our primary point of contact with the IOC and the Beijing Organizing Committee, helping get our program approved and working with the organizing committees to define the terms of the program and open up blogging for the athletes.

From Ogilvy, the team on the ground that drove the production of the program and acted as bloggers-in-chief were the incredibly effective duo of Rohit Bhargava and Kaitlyn Wilkins. They were everywhere, crawling over Beijing with great tenacity, seeking out the athletes and producing a compelling stream of video, Tweets, and in-person meet-ups that showcased the athletes and brought their stories to the attention of the world. For future Olympic sponsors looking for a breakthrough online play, look no further than Bhargava and Wilkins. Their passion for the Olympics is infectious and they bring not only innate expertise as bloggers to the table, but they are total pros when it comes to promotion and communications, combining the classic and the new together.

Finally I want to point out that without the unflagging support of Deepak Advani, Lenovo’s Chief Marketing Officer, the Voices of the Summer Olympics would not have happened. He immediately saw the value in the concept, challenged me to take it even further, and when forces both internal and external attacked the concept as too risky and unproven, stood tall and defended it.

So, how did it do? Or, better question, what was it supposed to do?

In the long run it comes down to selling personal computers. If this project can build an association in a potential buyer’s mind that Lenovo builds awesomely engineered PCs and is cool enough to give them to elite athletes so they can make history and share their stories with the world for the first time, then it did its part to support Lenovo’s role as the official provider of computing technology to the Olympics games.

Some metric goals were set, all of them were exceeded. I would argue that raw statistical measures are not the way to gauge a social media marketing program – that there is a number of softer metrics which need to be taken into account.

First are the gross tonnage metrics – how many people saw it, how many impressions, how many times, etc.

Second is the promotional model – how did we market the existence of this program and make people aware that it existed?

Third is engagement – did the program capture the users’ attention and compel them to interact with the athletes? With Lenovo?

Fourth is public relations and perception – did the program cast Lenovo in the right light? I would argue that given the controversial build up of issues leading up to these Games, that mitigating the censorship issue was a big thing for a company with deep China ties. No, Lenovo does not set political policies about Internet openness in China. Nor should we. But I believe our support and enablement of this program should be regarded as Lenovo’s commitment to principles such as freedom of speech and expression. To raise the flag a little bit, if we’re marketing our IdeaPads to consumers as a product that enables them to create and share their ideas, then putting those same products in the hands of athletes to create and share their experiences with the world would seem to be a perfect match.

On gross tonnage: about 1.6 million people visited the Lenovo pages. We don’t know how many people visited the athlete’s blogs directly nor how many people subscribed to the individual feeds of the athlete’s blogs, but we do know the athletes posted about 1,500 posts and received approximately 5,000 comments to those posts from readers.

The promotional plan was largely driven by Federated Media who brought in a unique play combining their own network of blogs andc Facebook, where Citizen Sports developed an application for users to download and install to cheer their home country’s athletes on. We contracted for 200,000 downloads, paying a fee per download, with anything beyond that 200,000 being a bonus to us. The program delivered 250,000 downloads and more than 1.5 million invites were sent through the Facebook app.

Ad creative and integration with the blogger program was the smart play, something we insisted on in our planning with Federated and Citizens. First, we syndicated the bloggers’ content and most recent posts into the ad units and Facebook pages, insuring a steady flow of new and compelling content into the program and the ad creative. That creative was not carrying a strong promotional message of “buy now” as we were running the entire campaign around awareness and not classic demand generation, so not a lot of surprise around the relatively low click-through rate.

Paid search was an important component of the plan, and we bid on Olympic related search terms to build traffic directly to the sites. This program was managed by Kim Preslar on the Lenovo side and our search agency Covario.

Engagement, or social metrics, indicate we received 10,000,000 theoretical impressions. The use of Twitter under the ID Lenovo2008, contributions to the #080808 hash tag, and constant publishing to Flickr and YouTube helped surround the blogging program with related content and connections.

  • Total Social Media Impressions – 10,404,344
  • Total Social Media Mentions- 202 sites
  • Lenovo Site Visitors – 1,400,000
  • Total number of athlete posts – 1500
  • Total number of comments on athlete blogs – 5000
  • Flickr Photos & Views – Over 800 photos and 6000+ views

Public relations: I am not an expert at communications metrics by any stretch of the imagination, but on the basis of verbatim and anecdotal testimonials, the program did very well. The negatives – some bloggers gave the program grief for looking and feeling too “corporate,” for not being adequately optimized for search engine optimization, and because the athletes weren’t being racy enough in dishing the dirt. After we guided some critics to the fact that Lenovo was not editing or influencing the athletes’ content things turned solidly positive.

In concluding, let me share some random lessons learned.

First: as David Armano pointed out, programs such as this personify the possibilities of Marketing 2.0 and breathe new life into the old and tired “microsite” model of the past. Second: pushing programs like the Voices of the Summer Olympics requires a lot of patience and a very adventurous leadership team. Getting buy in from the highest levels and then having the fortitude to hang in there despite the slings and barbs of doubters is the most important ingredient for success. Third: don’t fall in love with your plan. Be flexible and go where the program takes you. Don’t fall in love with your own vision and let other people modify it with their best thinking along the way.

I am pretty sad this project is over. Lenovo won’t be sponsoring another Olympics. Athlete blogging will live on and doubtlessly the next games in Vancouver will see some sponsor do something equally good with the technology or the next technology. It’s been a great experience, a hard one, but now to move onto the next big thing (and boy do I have something even bigger cooking at present).

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “And for my next trick … Farewell to the Olympics”

  1. Good Lord, David, I can’t think of a single thing any of the so-called “A” Listers could add to this or otherwise suggest that would have made it any better.
    What’s really astounding is your leadership position, inspiring others to make positive contributions whlie passing on what you know and how to execute flawlessly.
    I am completly in awe of your program and look forward to seing what’s next, Dave.
    With a lot of admiration for a job well done and for investing in your staffers and showing them what great delegation is all about.

    best,
    jim

  2. What else is there to say? Amazing program, incredible experience, a team I’d take to a war with me. At times it got tough (you know what I mean), but that’s the spice in life.

    Inspired post. Now onto the next big thing. Does the fun ever end?

  3. It was a pleasure and honor for me and the rest of our Ogilvy team (including Kristin Foster, Nicole Landruth, Rachel Caggiano and Kaitlyn) to work with you on this project. I shared some thoughts about it on my blog as well, but an important point I realized was just how important it was to have a smart, proactive, and visionary client team in you and the rest of the folks we worked with at Lenovo. We do this often – working with brands and client teams, and honestly this was one of the best I have ever had the chance to work with. You should all be proud of that because it is (sadly) not always the case. We consider ourselves lucky to have had the chance to execute this project with you.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.