How two Super Bowl contenders are shaping up

The Super Bowl is multilevel contest. Officially, it’s an athletic contest between two football teams. Results from that contest are decided on the playing field. It’s also become a battle of the advertisers, with results being decided in various polls, from Ad Age to USA Today‘s Super Bowl Ad Meter.

The teams

But now, a third contest is shaping up, for building the most social-media buzz, and two pizza brands are the players. One is Papa John’s, whose advertising agency is Zimmerman, of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and Pizza Hut, represented by the Martin Agency, headquartered here in Richmond. Both brands have readied different Super Bowl strategies, and integrated marketing company Alterian is keeping score.

The strategies

For the first time ever, Pizza Hut is advertising during broadcast of the game itself (as opposed to pre-game, when they reasoned in past years that most people would be deciding where to phone for pizza).

For the first time ever, Papa John’s is forgoing television and staking everything on a social networking and web-based loyalty program which focuses on the Super Bowl.

And Alterian is counting and analyzing mentions of both brands (and 30 other Super Bowl advertisers) on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, message boards, photo and video sharing, and other forms of social networking. From August 1 through February 1, they’ve checked out 73,751 online conversations for numbers of mentions, popularity of each posting (i.e., how many followers each goes to) and positive/negative feelings about each brand in each post. While this process will continue through Super Bowl Sunday, there are already some signs of who’s winning, both in pizza brands and in media.

The score

The big winner isn’t a pizza brand, but an online medium. To date, microblogs — which mostly means Twitter — are way out in front. Fully 48.5% of the online conversations were Tweets.

In the pizza game, it looks at first glance that Pizza Hut’s ahead, with 442,887 total online mentions to Papa John’s 115,163. But first glances can be deceiving.

Papa John’s seems to be ahead on timing; their interactions peaked on January 25, some 20 days closer to the game than Pizza Hut’s. The day Pizza Hut announced its Super Bowl participation, activity doubled, but it’s since declined to average. Papa John’s, in contrast, has been steadily climbing since they announced their promotion. When it comes to sentiment, boih brands are about tied (in proportion, not absolute numbers), with 63-64% of comments neutral and 18-19% very positive.

The spread

Two factors could very well affect both the August through February totals – and consumer behavior during the game.

First, to what extent will people who post to Facebook and Tweet while it’s on be paying enough attention to the telecast to notice, much less react to, the Pizza Hut commercials? Will this favor Papa John’s?

And second, will the fact that Pizza Hut’s market share (14%) is more than double Papa John’s (6%) skew the results?

Come back next week and find out.