Olympic hashtags go viral but there's little talk about the games: Deakin expert

Media release
12 January 2018

Recent Olympic Games have provided a catalyst for trending social media hashtags where the conversation is often about everything but actual sporting events, and the Pyeongchang Winter Games are shaping up to be no different according to a Deakin University sport management expert.

Dr Michael Naraine, a Deakin Centre for Sport Research and Deakin Business School researcher in social media and the evolution of its use in sport, said that sponsors of the Pyeongchang Winter Games would likely have their hashtags hijacked by those looking to make political statements - as was the case with the London, Sochi and Rio Games.

“The use of social media really kicked off during the 2012 London Olympics, but it was during the Sochi Winter Games that its presence was really felt,” Dr Naraine said.

“With Sochi there was a huge political appetite for people to vent about the fact that the games were held in Russia.

“Commentary was focussed around (athlete) living quarters that were small and the LGBTQ situation with Russia not accepting of people of different sexual orientations."

“There was a lot of vitriol online where corporate sponsors lost control of their messaging to people who were hijacking their hashtags. For example, McDonalds saw their #CheersToSochi dominated by posts from LGBTQ activists and supporters while “gays can’t get married in Russia #imlovingit” was a common thread as well.

“Co-opting the use of Olympic-related hashtags is a sure way to see a message go viral very quickly.”

With this year’s Winter Games being held in another political hot spot, Dr Naraine said it will be interesting to see what stakeholders are saying on social media about the Olympics and how that might be spun beyond the games.

“It will be interesting to see how the political element surpasses the games themselves, with the potential for sponsor hashtags to be used in posts about athlete safety, the likelihood of retaliation from North Korea and the omnipresence of US President Trump’s threats,” he said.

Dr Naraine said that despite the risk of social media hijackers, major companies will continue their association with the Olympic Games and ride out any negative connections to their brands by staying involved in the social conversation.

“The Olympics are still one of the preeminent sporting spectacles, and brands utilise the reach and visibility of the Games to promote their products and services,” Dr Naraine said.

“The potential to have content and hashtags hijacked for other, non-brand related topics is detrimental, yet these brands continue to persist in their sponsorships. McDonald's and Coca-Cola are global properties, and attaching themselves to a global spectacle is still the best way to maximize visibility and promotions of their products on a global scale.

“In the end, sponsors must continue to activate and stay involved in the social conversation; there are many sponsors of the Olympics who are very passive in their activation on social media platforms.

“Others like Samsung and Proctor and Gamble are highly active in the social space, and that's really how you can mitigate the potential for hijacks is to continue to post consistent messaging and engage with users.”

The take home lesson for sport event managers and marketers is, in the current landscape, you cannot use social as a billboard to post content and hope it sticks, Dr Naraine said.

“Social media is about being social, and you have to expect that stakeholders will vocalize their dissent if they choose.

“So consistent and constant engagement is key to ensure the central message remains intact.”

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