The Keys to Digital Media Success at World Cup

July  30,  2014 / By Dan Gadd

The 2014 World Cup was record breaking in nearly every way. It was quite literally the planet’s most popular event. More than one billion people watched it on television. Facebook and Twitter saw record engagement numbers, including three billion interactions on Facebook and 32 million Tweets during the World Cup’s final game.

Brands spent big money on marketing and advertising at the World Cup. Fueled by the passion that lives on social media, for the first time, budgets shifted significantly to digital and social. The size and participation of the audience makes it tempting for brands and marketers to jump into the World Cup action.

Yes, the numbers are big. But volume alone did not translate into success for brands that activated on social media during the World Cup.

As is always the case on social media, success is dependent on getting a reaction from the audience. Some brands did it very well. Some did not.

So what was the difference between success and failure?

Just as importantly, what can be learned for future sports social media activations?

Based on extensive research into social media participation around the World Cup and the results of brand campaigns, we can say the answer to the first question is simple.  The group that succeeded asked the right questions and built a plan around the answers. As a result, their strategy was a fit for the World Cup, and, more importantly, the people watching it.

These questions include:

  • Who is watching and participating on social media?
    • Where are they geographically? What is their interest in the World Cup?
  • When precisely are they participating?
    • How closely is this linked to the broadcast of games?
  • What is driving their participation?
    • What exactly are they saying? What causes them to react or share?
  • Where, or on what platforms, are they participating?
    • How does participation differ on various platforms

Through demographic data and social media monitoring, we found compelling answers to these questions that can be translated into three simple truths or “Factors for Success.” We also saw a clear line of delineation between brands that adhered to these factors, and those that did not.

Three Success Factors

The brands with campaigns that resonated with the World Cup audience built social media strategies that adhered to a few basic principles that while seemingly simple, made the difference in successful brand executions.

1. The World Cup is a tournament of real-time moments, driven by game action and the broadcast of those games

For over a month, the World Cup was discussed every day no matter what was happening on the tournament’s fields. But the disparity between the size of the conversation during the most compelling games, and the lulls in action were staggering. As we will detail below, the top performing brands built strategies that leveraged these conversation peaks to their advantage using content that was relevant to the moment.  They were present when viewers were active on social media.

Interestingly, the brands that achieved the top individual pieces of content did not follow this strategy. They built their campaigns around getting those single ads or pieces of content seen. But the brands that drove the best overall social media results delivered many pieces of content throughout the tournament that were specific to relevant audiences.

2. It is a celebration of national pride

Futbol is the world’s most popular sport. But the World Cup does not reach the heights in viewership or audience engagement that it does because of avid futbol fans. It is the world’s most popular event because it is the premier opportunity for people around the globe to demonstrate national pride. People view the World Cup through the lens of their country, and they want to demonstrate “love of country.”

Brands that aided this demonstration one nation at a time generally found success. Brands that were not able to tap into that sentiment were impacted negatively. Examples of campaign focal points that did not perform as well include:

  • Their product over the country or team
  • A general, not nation-specific, World Cup message
  • Celebrating one country by denigrating another

3. It is an event for a global audience

Even brands that are considered primarily U.S. brands performed best when their strategy could be embraced by residents of any of the participating nations. Budweiser, for instance, placed an emphasis in the U.S. of being an American beer through their more U.S.-facing @Budweiser account, but they created an @BudweiserFC account to target World Cup content to people of other countries. Their title sponsorship of FIFA’s “Man of the Match” award provided an outstanding content platform to target specific countries.

The Winners: Evaluation of World Cup’s top-performing brands on social media

The 2014 World Cup may have been the single-highest event for brand participation on social media the globe has ever seen, and it certainly saw digital ad spending go to new levels. But while resource levels, digital ad spending figures and sponsorship assets varied greatly, the brands that were the most visible, well-received brands followed the principles outlined above.

We evaluated many brands from various categories, spend levels and World Cup sponsor or non-sponsor status, and results were consistently tied to how well strategy matched the three success factors. While we did see a number of winners emerge, for the purpose of this document we will take a deeper dive into one World Cup sponsor that, while not perfect, usually got it right.

Non-Apparel Brands – How Budweiser earned the crown: Few, if any, brands applied the resources to World Cup social media efforts that the major sports apparel brands did.  But some did find success.

Chief among these was Budweiser. The American King of Beers faced the interesting challenge of maintaining their standing as a U.S. beer with Americans, while leveraging the World Cup for the international potential it offered.

Using their title sponsorship of FIFA’s “Man of the Match” award, Budweiser created a social media strategy that delivered on all three success factors laid out earlier. Using Twitter’s new voting feature, Budweiser allowed people to support their country’s players by voting for them to be named “Man of the Match” immediately following games while they were still excited.

The voting results led to a winner being recognized for that official World Cup award. This created content that allowed Budweiser’s audiences to celebrate their country’s players. It also gave Budweiser the ability to target content specifically to people that would react the most positively to it. They aided this effort by creating a @BudweiserFC account to help deliver content to an international audience, while keeping @Budweiser mostly patriotic to the U.S. [though fans did comment on what rights a Belgian-owned company had in rooting for the US Men’s National Team.]


Budweiser’s World Cup efforts were not perfect. Creatively, their campaign may not have had the same impact as other brands, and the branded content they delivered through @USSoccer struck a negative chord with U.S. fans by placing the focus more on the brand than country.

But their aim was usually right. It was a campaign that gave citizens of all participating countries reasons to engage, it became visible at a peak time for conversation (immediately following games), and most importantly it gave people a tangible way to demonstrate their national pride.

As a result, Budweiser’s campaign was mentioned more frequently than other non-apparel brands, it was prevalent throughout the tournament, and it dominated other brands in mentions alongside top team hashtags.

Not only did the campaign work with fans, it was on brand for Budweiser. The brand actively integrates their product with sports and entertainment events, and there are none bigger than the World Cup.

Budweiser summary: Budweiser tapped into the timing and sentiments that drove people to participate during the World Cup.

They inserted themselves into the celebratory moments that are drivers on social media. Their campaign was a fit for the types of conversations people wanted to have during the World Cup. Budweiser’s approach is a strong case study in generating reach on social media, and aligning a brand to the things a consumer cares about. They understood the three factors to success during the World Cup and used them to build an outstanding social media strategy.

Budweiser was an official FIFA World Cup sponsor, but many of the key elements of their social media strategy could have been executed without the benefits of being an official sponsor.

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