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Super Bowl ads: Why social media matters now

The Vince Lombardi Championship trophy, awarded to the Super Bowl winner
Getty Images
The Vince Lombardi Championship trophy, awarded to the Super Bowl winner

Super Bowl commercials are about to get a lot more social.

For years, the ultimate American sporting event has served as a peerless venue for a parade of multimillion-dollar, 30-second bursts of branding. Until recently, you'd never know from watching the ads on air how relentlessly social advertising was spreading online.

That changes this year. On Sunday, Super Bowl sponsors' hashtags are going to be as ubiquitous as the hash marks on the field.

For many marketers, the epiphany came during last year's 34-minute Superdome power outage early in the third-quarter showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. An alert marketing team promoting Nabisco's Oreo cookies fired off an inspired, now-famous tweet to loyal fans of the iconic snack.

"Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark."

The 43-character message was retweeted 10,000 times in the first hour, picking up 18,000 likes and 5,000 shares on Facebook.

In social marketing circles, it was the tweet heard 'round the world

The message wasn't lost on Jaguar, which will roll out a 60-second spot at halftime starring British "bad guy" actors Sir Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong and Tom Hiddleston. The "Good to Be Bad" campaign is designed to reinforce Jaguar's status as a "challenger" brand, according to Jeff Curry, Jaguar's brand vice president for North America

"It's really about being there and being able to have that one-on-one conversation with people online," said Curry. "What people want is to have a real-time engagement with the brand. And that's the beauty of social media—it allows you to do that."

Jaguar's effort will extend well beyond its pricey, 60-second TV spot. From kickoff to final score, a team of more than 30 staffers, outside social agency specialists and representatives from Twitter, Facebook, Google and other social outlets will be huddled in a control room, trolling social channels as they push Jaguar's message to fans watching the game and talking online.

Other companies are rolling out similar campaigns to insert their brands into the online conversation about the game, according to Matt McGee of Marketing Land, which tracks online marketing.

"The smart brands are recognizing that you can't just put a hashtag or your [Facebook] URL on the end of your ad," he said. "If you really want to make a splash, you have to have a plan and inject yourself ... in some creative way."

Dozens of sponsors plan to extend their reach online with social media campaigns this year, said McGee, who will be tracking their output and tallying the results on the site's #HashtagBowl. This year's online conversation is expected to include most of the game's on-air sponsors, he said.

Far from sitting back and waiting to see who shows up on their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, the Super Bowl sponsors stepping up their social game are mining data flowing in from each platform and channel.

Jaguar's team, for example, will be able to see which tweets and posts are having the biggest influence on brand fans and potential buyers. They'll also be monitoring the wider online conversation about the game, buying keywords to help their tweets trend higher and to boost the reach of their posts.

Social media blitzes like Jaguar's aim to transform a single TV spot aimed at millions into an opportunity to connect with one viewer at a time. The long-term goal, of course, is to steer those viewers into Jaguar showrooms.

"When people indicate they want to engage with you at a big event like the Super Bowl, they're sort of giving you permission and saying, 'Hey I want to talk to you and learn more about you," said Curry. "And I also want you to learn more about me, because I might be interested your brand or your cars."

By CNBC's John Schoen. Follow him on Twitter @johnwschoen or email him.

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