Influencers and the Super Bowl have been a natural fit since advertising became as associated with the event as the game itself, but the role of influencer marketing is growing as more brands integrate it into their strategy.
While the usually large crop of celebrities showed up for TV campaigns at Super Bowl LI, mid-sized and micro-influencers — social figures with smaller but dedicated followings — looked like an increasingly viable way for brands to build out their marketing outreach on digital. In the lead up to game day, PepsiCo tapped Tastemade "Tastemakers" to compete in an original content series to win tickets to Super Bowl LI and Snickers broadcast a whopping 36-hour pre-game live stream that featured social influencers.
For smaller marketers who can't necessarily put down $5 million on a 30-second TV spot — or however many additional ad dollars it takes for an appearance from Melissa McCarthy — influencers are also starting to drive new methods of engagement, especially around Super Bowl-adjacent events like watch parties and tailgates, experts say.
"We’re definitely seeing influencer marketing become more a part of brands' overall strategies during the Super Bowl," said Rachael Cihlar, director of Influencer Strategy at TapInfluence.
As long as marketers remain vigilant about not encroaching on NFL or broadcast trademarks, using influencers and micro-influencers, in particular, is proving to be one of the more viable ways to capitalize on the big game — or any destination viewing event.
"When you consider what a Super Bowl buy is, it’s a reach and an awareness buy," said Nick Cicero, CEO and founder of Delmondo. "For small to mid-sized brands looking to achieve activations during the Super Bowl through small, targeted media spend [...] you can look at influencers.
"Distributing through these channels is usually cost-effective," he continued. "Even brands [with larger budgets] can deliver a lot more on viewership and are starting to think about things like original video with influencers."
Marketing around broadcast staples like the Super Bowl often requires brands to build a bit of their own hype. In recent years, marketers running TV spots have begun teasing their Super Bowl creative via digital channels weeks before the game, and the same rules generally apply to influencer marketing. In fact, influencer tactics might actually need to be seeded even earlier in the year for brands mapping out a game plan for 2017.
"The strategy really needs to start before January," said Cihlar.
Brands looking to make the most impact at the Super Bowl with their influencers should start as far back as the fall, early in the NFL season, and then build out their stable of content and brand narrative to gain traction on the road to the big game. Older posts still relevant to the Super Bowl — say, a good dip recipe for viewing parties — can be re-surfaced and shared on game day, per Cihlar.
"If you’re thinking about micro-influencer tactics, it should be a simple idea that is easily repeatable," said Cicero. "Some of the smarter small to mid-sized brands can go beyond that as well, like creating an original three to four episode video series for Facebook or YouTube."
Keeping it light
Influencer posts should also be optimized for SEO, being easily searchable for any consumers looking for relevant content.
"Make sure the communication that comes across through an influencer is the same information you’re communicating on other channels," said Professor Alixandra Barasch, who teaches marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business. "If you don’t have coordination you lose some of the power."
In terms of the tone itself, smaller marketers can take note from their bigger counterparts, who often stay away from serious or solemn messaging that would bring game day spirits down. No one wants a repeat of Nationwide’s dead kid fiasco.
"[T]he best types of products for this context are ones that can involve a light, funny or humorous post," said Barasch. "Brands like Doritos usually do pretty well with Super Bowl ads [...] the same thing would apply to influencer marketing."
Navigating the field
In January, Antonio Brown, a receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, landed in hot water for live streaming from the team's locker room on Facebook. It turned out that Brown was reportedly being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the social network to use Live streaming — a sort of shady form of influencer marketing — which ultimately violated NFL policy on top of not being particularly transparent with fans.
The NFL, on the whole, keeps a notoriously watchful eye on its media properties and recently began penalizing teams that share NFL content on social media. Marketers without official deals in place with the league should be additionally cautious when using influencers if they don't want their content taken down.
“Of course there are things you need to watch out for like trademarks. There are very strict usage rights” said Cihlar. “Having ‘Super Bowl’ in your content isn’t always going to be approved.”
While the NFL and its broadcasting partners are often stringent about controlling their media, workarounds are plenty for SMBs or mid-sized businesses looking to get in on the action. For example, brands are starting to use hashtags like #BigGame, which signal to many consumers the same message as #SuperBowl for sponsored posts. Key words can also be drawn from events tied to the Super Bowl such as mentioning tailgates or, obviously, football.
"It might be particularly important to rely on more informal channels for influence during the Super Bowl," said Barasch. "For example, a brand community (on their websites or on social media) could be a perfect place to have a conversation about a new product or feature, especially if it is related to the game or commercials people are seeing (even if not your own brand)."
One of the big questions around any influencer marketing effort is picking the right platform. Part of that simply boils down to knowing where a brand's audience is, but destination viewing events like the Super Bowl do play into the strengths of some services more than others.
"For live events, Twitter is a great medium," said Cihlar. "It’s not necessarily a great form of content creation but it’s where a lot of that chatter happens during a live event.
“If you can play on having some influencer who has a really good following on Twitter and can chime in real-time as things happen, that’s a great opportunity for brands to be involved," she added. "Sometimes it’s hard for [marketers] to come up with their own ideas in the moment, but if an influencer can help out there it’s a huge benefit to the brand."
Research from Burson-Marsteller's Fan Experience sports and entertainment specialty group recently found that 87% of "constant social media users" are interested in extra social media content beyond brand’s in-game TV advertising. Influencers can obviously be leveraged to bolster those efforts.
"A lot of people are watching the Super Bowl just for the commercials. So any influencer that comments on or ties their post back to the commercials could do particularly well," said Barasch. "[P]eople are looking to engage with brands, products, and ads more on Super Bowl day than any other day of the year — so something that is geared towards consumer action (e.g., visiting a website, using a hashtag on social media, participating in a contest) could be particularly effective."
A winning fit
While top tier athletes like Brown often demand the same high price tags of many other celebrities, lesser known names, free agents or even retirees might be more affordable, according to Tapinfluence strategist Sydney Hodgson.
Of course, the same rules that apply to regular influencer posts are musts for marketing around destination events like the Super Bowl — namely, that sponsorships or product placements put out by the influencers should be both properly disclosed as paid for and creatively crafted as opposed to being a blunt plug.
"Last year, I remember some backlash against Peyton Manning plugging Budweiser after the game (turns out that they didn't pay him to do so, but that he had an investment in the company),” said Barasch. "Either way, it is important not to come across as insincere."
Thinking outside of the box when it comes to outreach and influencer talent selection can also help brands connect with consumers not necessarily within the bounds of a traditional Super Bowl audience, ultimately filling out markets that don't usually get a lot of mindshare during the game.
“There will always be these typical things you see during the Super Bowl whether it’s a beer advertisement or ordering pizza or wings — a way to stand out is to try and reach the consumers who, for them, the Super Bowl isn’t everything,” said Cihlar.
Instead of doing a traditional wings recipe, for example, brands can try vegetarian of vegan alternatives to hit on a demographic maybe not in line with a typical NFL viewer.
“It’s about creating content for people that fit your brand [...] even if you would not typically market to them during that time,” said Cihlar.