In 2006, Graeme Menzies and a few colleagues travelled to Turino, Italy to watch the 20th Winter Olympics. The group constituted part of what would become the communications team for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, which kick off with opening ceremonies on Friday.
Menzies is the director of online communications, publications and editorial services for the Vancouver Organizing Committee, also known as VANOC. Prior to joining VANOC, he worked in communications for Microsoft. During his time in Italy four years ago, he took careful note of the fact that many people were talking about — as well as visiting — YouTube.
“I noticed that the Turino Games had nothing on YouTube,” he said in an interview. “It was very hot around four years ago — it was what Twitter is today. A lot of people were talking about it, not as many were using it, and those that were using it were not doing so very strategically.”
Back in 2006, Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook was available only to university or high school students. The point being that if the VANOC communications team had planned their strategy based on what they saw and knew back in 2006, they would have been caught flat-footed by two of the most important social networks.
Back in 2006, Menzies said, he realized YouTube was symbolic of what was to come.
“When I was thinking about YouTube, I had the realization that you can’t really plan four years out in online communications,” he said. “The smartest planning for online communications has to include knowing that something else is going to happen four or two or three years from now that you don’t know about yet.”
As a result, the team created an online communications strategy that put the Games’ website at the heart of its activities. From there, it branched out to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, as well as other offerings such as podcasts and photo galleries.
“When we looked at the social media channels out there, we examined what they are good at, and how they fit in with our mix,” he said. “TV is TV and radio is radio, but this is something else altogether. In the online world you have Facebook, websites, YouTube, Twitter — so how do they go together? Who do you reach with each of them? And how do you create a package that engages people?”
With that in mind, here’s an overview of VANOC’s online and social media communications strategy.
The Mother Ship + Aggregation
“The website is the mother ship,” Menzies said. “Our research tells us that it will receive somewhere in the region of 60 million visitors over the period of the Games, along with between 1.5 billion and 1.6 billion page views.”
The site is home to the expected information about events and results, along with a ton of other Olympics-related information. It also features a detailed Spectator Guide to help people find their way around and get where they need to go, as well as a plethora of photo galleries, podcasts, and videos.
One nod to a current trend in the world of news is the Best of the Web page. As the Games begin, Menzies said his team will look for interesting and notable reporting and features published by outside individuals, groups and organizations. Yes, the Games will be engaging in a bit of news aggregation and curation. Each item featured on the page also includes a Digg button to enable visitors to promote ithe link.
“We’ll be able to say ‘Here’s something interesting to read, or a Flickr gallery,’” Menzies said. “It’s not really realistic to expect us to produce all of the content. But we will produce what we can as well as we can, and look at other people producing content and if it fits our values, we can recommend that.”
When Menzies thinks about Twitter, his mind wanders to Marshall McLuhan and the telegraph.
“[McLuhan] had a theory that what new media often does is it makes something redundant, and retrieves something that was previously redundant,” he said. “Twitter has retrieved the telegram. It’s a good telegram: Short little sentences and things that are important for the next five minutes, but not so important after that.”
This view of the service greatly influences how Menzies personally operates VANOC’s official Twitter account, @2010tweets. So far, the accounts are focused on pushing out links and information, rather than engaging in discussions with other Twitter users. He said he’s found Twitter to be useful for distributing ticketing information and sharing local-focused items.
Along with the main feed, VANOC created other Twitter accounts that act as alert services for people looking for information about tickets, scheduling and transportation. Menzies said that VANOC will not try to influence people to follow official hashtags for events or other aspects of the Games.
“Hashtags are something we’re looking at, but they’re not something we can totally control,” he said. “Other people out there have already created hashtags…It’s not realistic to pretend we can control everything out there.”
The official Olympics Facebook page has well over 350,000 fans. Menzies said his team views the page the same way they view the Olympic venues in Vancouver.
“We build the venues but we don’t run the sports,” he said. “We built the Facebook page but we don’t own it. We are the initiator [of content and information on the page], but after that it’s up to the community. They respond in English, French, Chinese and other languages from near and far, and generally moderate themselves.”
He said the page is a place where people who love the Olympics can congregate. “They feel the same way about the Games,” he said. “Those that don’t like the Games have their own pages.”
Again, however, Menzies emphasizes that the traffic on the Facebook page is tiny compared to the main website.
“Everything we do in our approach to social media is in the context and with the knowledge that the website is the motherlode and the mother ship,” he said.
That perspective explains why the VANOC approach to Twitter and Facebook is to use them to rebroadcast information from the website, and direct people back to the site. Menzies and his team are not jumping in on discussion threads or adding comments to hashtag discussions.
The official Games YouTube channel has been pumping out videos for months. The torch relay is a major source of video content, and the channel has also featured videos about specific sports and Vancouver itself.
Menzies said they realize the broadcast partners and a range of media will also be producing video. As a result, VANOC’s videos focus on presenting things from their perspective as the host.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What can people receive from us and not from other channels?’ It was a good exercise and it reminded us that we’re the hosts, we have a responsibility to the country and to the world,” he said.
YouTube is a necessary platform because “if you’ve got videos you should put them up where people go to watch videos,” according to Menzies.
Being in the Moment
Apart from the major social media services, VANOC released a free mobile app, which contains much of the content available in the online Spectators Guide, as well as the schedule of the Cultural Olympiad, and the latest news, images and video from the website.
Once the Games start, Menzies said it’s a matter of the team putting the strategy and all of their tools and services into action.
“Our job is to organize and host the Games in February and the Paralympics in March,” he said. “We’re done at end of March, so our goal is to be in the moment…being ahead of the pack is just as bad as being behind. We don’t want to be on the bleeding edge or behind the times. We want to be in the moment.”
On that point, he said he feels satisfied. “We’ve got a nice package of communications channels put together to deliver a great experience,” he said. “Of course, it will all change by the time London 2012 comes around.”
Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is the founder and editor of Regret The Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.