SMW London: Alex Balfour and the Digital Olympics

It’s Social Media Week and I’ve managed to squeeze in enough time to head out to a few events in and around London. Given how many sessions at the Games I managed to get to, it was only fitting that the first session this week was to hear about the Olympics and how they worked on a digital platform. Alex Balfour was the Head of New Media for the London Olympics, starting with the team six years ago and this was a chance for him to talk about what happened, some of the challenges, wins and failures that the team experienced.

Given it was the Olympics, it was fitting he started off with a montage set to an inspirational song, what seems to be the natural result of distilling down thousands of hours of sports coverage.

The original brief when he took the job was to build 2 websites – a refresh of the current one and a gamestime website. In the end, he and his team delivered 77 channels. They were determined to go the extra mile, to make sure all the delivery teams made the most of the attention that digital could bring and that was the result. Here’s some of the insights and lessons that he had to share

  • he was surprised that over 60% of ALL visits were via a mobile device, something that was not expected when they started. However, there was not as much use of Location based services as he expected, with 600k Facebook checkins and 100k Foursquare ones.
  • The amount of data they were dealing with was HUGE – so much so that some of the apps they built for devices could not count and had to be scaled down (eg the cultural events listings)
  • there were 70 different stakeholders that needed to sign off things. That made things difficult at times!
  • The basic objectives were to support the business in what they needed to deliver and to make sure a database for emails was built. The mandate was clear and kept them focused – when they went off path, that could lead to failure. A digital team objective was to be most used digital channel ever (including beating broadcast partners. They also had to make the channels as accessible as possible
  • There were no sponsors responsible for mobile connection the arenas – but there were lots of meetings with carriers. Boris Johnson took an early interest in it and called meetings – which meant the right people came to them. In general the mobile data worked. The sponsor BT also provided both onsite general wifi for public and a bespoke, locked mobile network for the organisers to work with across the network of venues
  • They had a full comms plan, including crisis planning, that was developed by the communications team. The thing that moved the needle when it came to planning comms was when around 2 yearas ago, the national media started to use twitter to source stories and then come to the PR team to ask questions about them. That drove up its priority. In addition, monitoring social media allowed validation for the Press team that either something was important or that it was isolated and, for example, there was far more conversation about something else
  • When Alex interviewed, he did talk about social media and digital consumption trends. The question was about how the Games would get involved and how they would use the channels to showcase themselves. They did not go out and build a social network, but worked with the existing. They had started some work with a sponsor, about youth involvement, but this got shelved (was not on the core mandate). They had ideas with Facebook etc, but often not carried through as policy changed across time. 1 year out, they did a ‘support your team’ on twitter, which showed how they could shape conversations and get people talking about the Games – 180k tweets in that time. They repeated something similar during Games and got 1.5m tweets – Mongolia won the ‘league'; as their president got involved and encouraged the country
  • Email was the most effective tool for communication, depsite all the other channels.
  • He felt they could have made more use on in-venue entertainment and interaction using social media, with teams and audiences, but did not get off the ground everywhere. Also, some volunteer networks were started, but could not be scaled in time
  • One ‘last minute’ app that came together (with help of Samsung) was for the Paralympics when they gave 50 athletes devices to create video. They asked for at least 6 pieces each, they got over 1000 in total. (better control of video rights for Paralympics, something not possible with Olympics)
  • He was surprised that more sponsors had not activated strongly. Some did, others were less than expected. Potentially because this is a short term project and they invested in other areas that had better payback (or at least, better understood payback)
  • Athletes (and teams) activated the whole thing pretty well. the IOC launched an Olympic hub, they have 5k athletes signed up and their feeds go into it.
  • He was asked what was best practice on delivering – have the right governance and have brilliant people!
  • Alex just loved the whole project, felt is was great to be involved. he’s now looking forward to actually watching the Games!

This was a lovely talk with some great insights. For example. only 5% of Gold Medal winners ever go onto make a living out the sport. It was interesting to think back to when I heard him speak in 2008 when a lot was new and how the world has changed and how the Olympics and LOCOG embraced and worked with social media.

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