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Super Bowl Sunday 2013 – Winners, Losers, and Casualties

No matter which team you were cheering for (or if you even watched the game at all), Super Bowl Sunday 2013 was more than a football game. Since the late 1990s, Super Bowl advertisers have tried to successfully link their TV ads to their online properties, sometimes with mixed results. Even 15 years later, companies can’t always predict how well their sites will perform on the big day. But unlike the early days of TV/online campaigns, the problems are more complex than a site going down under heavy traffic.

This year, some of the world’s premier brands spent millions of dollars on 30 second and 1-minute ad blocks (as well as millions for the creation of the ads) during the Super Bowl, all of which were tied directly to online or social media campaigns. However, not all the sites successfully resisted the onslaught of traffic.

The measurement results from the Compuware network in the periods leading up to, and during, the Super Bowl showed some clear winners and losers in page load time. Events like the Super Bowl require high-frequency measurements, so we set our locations to collect data every 5 minutes to catch every variation in performance, no matter how fleeting.

For the period from 5PM EST until 11PM EST on Sunday, February 3, the top and bottom 3 sites were:

Top 3 Performers

  1. Go Daddy
  2. Paramount
  3. Lincoln Motor Cars

Bottom 3 Performers

  1. Doritos
  2. Coca-Cola
  3. Universal Pictures
Top and Bottom Web Performers - Super Bowl 2013

Top and Bottom Web Performers – Super Bowl 2013

All of these sites chose different approaches to delivering their message online. And what we found through our analysis is that the issues that they encountered almost perfectly aligned with those that Compuware finds during every major online event.

You’re Not Alone

The Super Bowl is often referred to as the perfect storm for web performance – a 6-hour window, with the spotlight on your company for 30-60 seconds (or more if you bought many slots). However, the halo effect sees traffic to your site increase astronomically for the entire 6 hours while people prepare for your big unveiling.

But your company isn’t the only one doing the same thing. And many (if not all) of the infrastructure components, datacenters, CDNs, Ad providers, web analytics, and video streaming platforms you use are being used by other companies advertising during the Super Bowl.

So, even if you have tested your entire site to what you think is your peak traffic volume (and beyond), remember that these shared services are all running at their maximum volume during the Super Bowl. All of the testing you did on your site can be undone by a third-party that can’t handle a peak load coming from two, three, or more customers simultaneously.

Lesson: Verify that your third-party services can effectively handle the maximum load from all of their customers all at once without degrading the performance of any of them.

Lose a Few Pounds

The performance solution isn’t just on the third parties. It also relies on companies taking steps to focus on the most important aspect of Super Bowl Sunday online campaigns – getting people to your site. Sometimes this means that you have to make some compromises, perhaps streamline the delivery a little more than you otherwise would.

While the total amount of content is a key indicator of potential trouble – yes, big pages do tend to load more slowly than small pages – Compuware data showed that 2 of the 3 slowest sites drew content from more than 20 hosts and had over 100 objects on the page (with the slowest having over 200!). This complexity increases the likelihood that something will go wrong, and that if that happens, it could lead to a serious degradation in performance.

Lesson: While having a cool, interactive site for customers to come to is a big win for a massive marketing event like the Super Bowl, keeping a laser focus on delivering a successful experience sometimes mean leaving stuff out.

Have a Plan B (and Plan C, and Plan D…)

I know Murphy well. I have seen his work on many a customer site, whether they hired him or not. And when the inevitable red square (or flashing light or screaming siren) appears to announce a web performance problem, his name will always appear.

So, if you plan for a problem, when it happens, it’s not a problem. If your selected CDN becomes congested due to a massive traffic influx that was not expected, have the ability to dynamically balance load between CDN providers. If an Ad service or messaging platform begins to choke your site, have the ability to easily disable the offending hosts. If your cloud provider begins to rain on your parade, transfer load to the secondary provider you set up “just in case”. If your dynamic page creation begins to crash your application servers, switch to a static HTML version that can be more easily delivered by your infrastructure.

And, if you have fallen back to Plan J, have an amusing error message that allows your customers to participate in the failure of your success. Heck, create a Twitter hashtag that says “#[your company]GoesBoom” and realize that any publicity is better than not being talked about at all.

Lesson: Murphy always puts his eggs in one basket. Learn from his mistake and plan for problems. Then test your plans. Then plan again. And test again. Wash, rinse, repeat until you have caught 95% of the possible scenarios. Then, have a plan to handle the remaining 5%.

Now what?

So, what have we learned from Super Bowl 2013? We have learned that during period of peak traffic and high online interest, the performance issues that sites encounter are very consistent and predictable, with only the affected sites changing. But by taking some preventative steps, and having an emergency response plan, most of the performance issues can be predicted, planned for, and responded to when (not if) they appear.

So, when your company goes into the next big event, be it the Super Bowl or that one-day online sale, planning for the three items listed here will likely make you better prepared to bask in the success of the moment. We will be assisting you over the next few days by more deeply analyzing the performance of some of the top brand rivalries, in the Compuware version of the AdBowl.

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