As a sportswriter with a particular fondness for the Olympics, I’ve been following the Pyeongchang Games closely, especially via all the various sports channels on Twitter. While most of the posts on Sunday concerned the final sporting results, Russia’s flagless contingent or Ivanka’s presence at the closing ceremony, I started to notice something else.
The two ceremonies that bookend any Olympic Games always get plenty of attention, especially outside traditional sporting audiences, and this one was no different. Korean-Chinese boy band EXO was one of the star attractions at the closing ceremony and, well, they are rather popular online.
I got a little insight into this phenomenon a few weeks ago while researching a piece I wrote for SportBusiness about the use of former EXO member Kris Wu, now a solo performer (plus actor and model), and his association with sports. The NFL had just appointed Wu as the official Super Bowl ambassador for NFL China, while he has also played in the past three NBA All-Star celebrity games. Brands — in this case sports leagues — are essentially using him to widen their appeal to a new, hyper-engaged audience. Many of those fans don’t really care about the sport, but at the very least it does create a whole lot of “buzz” online, if only temporarily.
I’m not in the business of posting pictures of boy band stars on a regular basis, but if there’s a China/sports connection, then I’m all in. One post on Twitter about the announcement that Wu would perform in the build-up to Super Bowl 52 drew a combined 1,300 likes, retweets, and replies, while another picture of him on the field prior to kickoff garnered a combined total of close to 1,700.
There’s been a lot of focus on Twitter bots recently, especially those originating in Russia, with this New York Times piece exposing how many accounts — including Xinhua News — had bought thousands of fake followers, although it’s worth noting that the situation on Chinese social media platforms is far, far worse.
However, the vast majority of responses to the Kris Wu posts appeared to be from real fans. How much interest they actually had in the NFL is an entirely different question.
But back to last night.
EXO had announced that they would be taking over the official Olympics Twitter account for a few hours, with a series of posts purporting to be from individual band members each receiving upwards of 160,000 retweets and likes, 10 to 20 times better than previous popular posts on the account. The Olympic Channel repeated the trick, also seeing a massive jump in engagements.
Canada’s CBC, for whom I worked at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, then tried the same trick, with a clip of EXO’s performance receiving 272 times as many retweets as the account’s previous tweet — a video of the now-famous topless Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua, who himself usually receives a pretty warm reception online for some reason…
The same thing was happening elsewhere, so I tried something out.
It's taken global sports media folk a while to realize this, but they've finally figured out that mentioning the band EXO in just about any context can make their social media numbers go through the roof. #EXO_Olympics pic.twitter.com/JKVBNj008l
— Mark Dreyer (@DreyerChina) February 25, 2018
EXO fans, who now know call themselves EXO-Ls, did not disappoint, with 5,752 retweeting the post in the first hour alone, while another 3,123 hit “like.” Overnight, that number has grown to 14,000 retweets and 9,000 likes, which Twitter equates to 37,000 engagements and 282,000 impressions.
What’s more, it was pointed out to me by some eagle-eyed EXO-Ls that I actually used the wrong hashtag, typing #EXO_Olympics instead of the officially designated #Olympics_EXO — not that it seemed to matter.
Then, by pure coincidence I’m sure, Global Times and Xinhua Sports repeated the trick about an hour later, with similar results. CBC has been at it again this morning, with the clickbait posts clearly proving irresistible to their social media managers.
While it’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon, there are some real consequences from a social media perspective. PR firms are often directly compensated according to their results, and strategies like these could see them blow through agreed targets, with individual anomalies lost in the presentation of year-end results.
One word of warning though — you don’t want to piss off the EXO-Ls.
After two Korean speed skaters — one of whom had previously declared herself to be an EXO fan — appeared to abandon their slower teammate in the ladies’ team pursuit, fans mobilized online to say they had brought shame to EXO nation, prompting the swift shutdown of the skaters’ social media accounts.