What Mobile Marketers Can Take Away from the Rio Olympics

Read Time: 5 - 10 min

The first mobile phone dates to 1973. The first generation of the iPhone was announced in January 2007, then released (in the U.S.) in late June 2007. (Of course, Microsoft could have been there first -- except their CEO at the time, Steve Ballmer, was busy openly laughing at the new smartphones.)

This is all to say that the idea of “smartphones” have only been around less than 10 years. It often feels like longer, because they are such a major part of most people’s lives, almost regardless of economic status. There are more mobile devices than people on Earth, and, sadly, more mobile devices than toilets as well.

But because smartphones are still relatively new, they haven’t been as big a part of some events. For example, this is only the third Presidential election (with ‘08 and ‘12) where people are getting news from a smartphone about candidates or issues. There’s only been two World Cups (‘10 and ‘14) in the smartphone era.

The Olympics spaces out Summer and Winter now, so we’ve had smartphones to get news and watch in ‘08, ‘10, ‘12, ‘14, and now ‘16. The fifth Olympics of the smartphone era is really taking off, though.

For example: per eMarketer, more people watched the ‘16 Olympics on mobile than PC or television. The reasons are logical: it’s convenient (your phone is always with you), and it allows you to watch events live; traditional television definitely didn’t make that easy this summer. There’s a numbers component to this too: while TV audiences globally grew every year from 1949 to 2009, there’s been a slowdown since. This is because the rapid growth of mobile devices has jumped way over the rise in TVs. In the same vein, there’s 150% growth in video streams over London 2012, meaning about 2.9 billion video streams worldwide for the Rio games.

And as the CEO of Phunware told Venture Beat:

Today’s consumers want more control over their media experiences. They expect access to the content and information they want, when they want it, and traditional television and even web viewing just doesn’t align with those expectations,” said Alan Knitowski, chairman and CEO of Phunware, in a statement. “Mobile gives them that level of customization and on-demand accessibility, so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing consumers turn off the TV and turn to mobile to stay connected, especially when it comes to some of the biggest media events of the year, like the Summer Olympics.”

Liquid Agency, in the United Kingdom, even went as far as to call Rio ‘16 “the first truly mobile Olympics.”

Another big piece of this puzzle is the growth of mobile messaging. Since Sochi ‘14 -- the last Olympics before Rio -- mobile messaging app usage skyrocketed. About 83 million people used apps like Facebook Messenger or WeChat in 2014; that number was up 58 percent by the start of Rio. This changed the game for content providers, with CNN and others using chatbots for news at these Olympics.

What does all this mean, though?

If you look at that Liquid Agency line above -- calling Rio “the first truly mobile Olympics” -- it helps explain how we live in The Mobile Moment.

We’re not totally at scale with virtual reality or augmented reality -- although Pokemon Go was certainly a step in that direction -- and so you might not be able to virtually experience the ‘18 Games in South Korea (Winter Olympics).

But mobile has been growing exponentially around the world, and those trends are only going to continue.

Our predictions:

  • Mobile will continue to grow. 
    If people are interested in the Olympics or World Cup or elections or whatever else that only happens every four years (and they are), they will want to consume information about those things in the most convenient way possible. Typically, that’s mobile. Standard TV is rooted in older business models and ways of presenting information that are only starting to change now. Using your laptop is “digital,” yes, but your laptop isn’t always in your pocket. This is why mobile will keep growing.

  • You’ll see more apps dedicated to an event.
     The Rio Games had six or seven core apps -- the official Olympics one, the official NBC one, etc. -- and in future Games, you might see 10-12 dedicated, branded apps (if not more). Apps will allow marketers more information on who’s consuming their content and different pathways they’re taking through it; that information is helpful to marketers and helpful when contextualizing future spend to their bosses, so they will design ways to capture it.

  • Messaging will continue to be grow as well.
    This means news organizations and official channels for Olympics and other events will need to figure out how to continue to bake messaging apps into their overall strategy. Messaging apps are already bigger than social networks, so having a marketing focus here is crucial.


There are 537 days between the closing ceremonies in Rio and the opening ceremonies in South Korea. If you believe Moore’s Law, a ton will change in technology in that time frame. The one constant is likely to be the mobile-first nature of larger events for the foreseeable future.