Death, taxes & baffling Super Bowl ad rates

We’ve been talking on this blog recently about a few trends to watch in 2014, but we’ve really only scratched the surface. A marketer’s job seems to change daily, and keeping up with the latest tools and tactics is no small feat.

But how much do things really change? That seems like a natural question to ask this time of year, as we find the spotlight again focused on Super Bowl ads, which — rather than declining in importance with the advent of social media, advocacy marketing and other strategies for reaching consumers directly and authentically — continue to sell for more millions each game. (A :30 spot this Sunday will set a brand back by about $4 million.)

Graph source: Businessweek

As big as that number sounds, Super Bowl ads can still make sense for a lot of brands. Unlike during regularly scheduled programs, viewers usually don’t use the commercial breaks to visit the bathroom or make a sandwich — in fact, the audience is larger for Super Bowl ads than for the game itself. With that many eyeballs, their CPMs are actually in-line with TV ads in general, despite the high price tag. And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Super Bowl ads are dinosaurs, relics from an age when marketing options were more limited and mass reach more exalted.

But even an old dog can learn a new trick or two. While Super Bowl spots may still dominate (as one blog post I recently read put it, “Super Bowl advertising is the Super Bowl of advertising”), each passing year sees them supported more and amplified further through brands’ earned and owned efforts. Some ads include user-generated content (UGC), giving loyal fans access to advertising’s biggest stage; others are posted early or teased online, generating millions of impressions in the days and weeks prior to kickoff in the game’s aftermath. (In 2013, the 10 most shared ads were shared online over 10 million times, an 89% increase over the year before.)

Some savvy brands are even adding an offline element to the mix, with in-home parties designed to drive engagement and trial on Game Day itself and generate more authentic and informed word of mouth in the weeks that follow. This year, many brands are taking advantage of the House Party platform to give their biggest fans a fun, memorable Game Day experience: Ortega and Mrs. Dash have teamed up for the Fiesta Flats Big Game House Party, and — for the second consecutive year — SodaStream is supporting its on-screen presence with 1,000 SodaStream Fizz and Football House Parties.

There’s a lot of focus these days on getting more mileage out of Super Bowl ads through additional online reach, and rightfully so; but a marketing strategy that ignores the personal connections (and resulting impact on brand loyalty and advocacy) an offline branded experience can cultivate is leaving impressions on the table.

The most effective advertising isn’t seen but experienced — engaged with, and discussed. (Yes: people really do talk about advertising. According to Keller Fay, ¼ of all word of mouth references traditional advertising.) The best Super Bowl commercials, the ones that justify their costs, don’t exist in isolation. They fit snugly into the full marketing mix, deriving their real value not from paid impressions but rather the owned and earned reach that comes from connecting with consumers and getting them talking.

When surrounded by authentic consumer experiences, online and off, those Super Bowl investments seem a little less baffling — and the good news is, more and more marketers are starting to realize this. Some things never change; but some things do.