Berlin Creates Overarching Strategy for Special Olympics National Games and World Games

“The Most Important Thing Was That We Needed Some Engagement — Not Just With Our Social Media Followers but Also With Our Website Visitors.”

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A Special Olympics athlete in a red leotard and a red-white-and-green ribbon in her hair very expressively performing a gymnastics routine.

In June 2022, Berlin will host 4,000 athletes competing in 20 sports. And a year later, the city will do it all over again, with even more athletes and disciplines. What am I talking about? The Special Olympics, of course!

To be more precise, Berlin will be hosting the Special Olympics World Games in 2023. But before that, in 2022, they’ll host the German National Games, the qualifying event for the World Games.

Meet the Special Olympics

While the Special Olympics are extremely popular in the United States, I’ve come to realise that they aren’t as well-known in Europe. So I’m delighted to put this fantastic organisation in the spotlight and show you how the German Organising Committee is pulling off an overarching communication strategy for the National Games and World Games.

Screenshot of an Instagram post on the social wall. The photo shows a blue metal torch in the foreground. The torch is on and branded with “Special Olympics Nationale Spiele Berlin 2022”. The caption is in German and promotes the Special Olympics National Games in Germany.
Source: Instagram

I had a super interesting chat with Julia Felden, Senior Project Manager Digital, Advertising & Brand at #Berlin2023. I learned a lot about the team’s social media strategy and how they’re collecting user-generated content from a variety of sources.

We’re also planning to check back in again with the team in 2023 to get some updates on their strategy and social wall use. I think it will be interesting to see what will change over the year.

Julia Felden

Julia Felden

Julia Felden, Senior Project Manager Digital, Advertising & Brand at Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023

For those of us who’ve not had much exposure to the Special Olympics before, could you tell us a bit about them?

The Special Olympics were founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and are now the largest inclusive movement for people with intellectual disabilities. It’s a worldwide movement established in more than 200 countries.

The Special Olympics World Games are a sporting event that takes place every two years, alternating Summer Games and Winter Games. To qualify for the World Games, German athletes first compete in National Games, usually held the year before each World Games event.

In 2022, the German National Games will take place in Berlin. For the German athletes, it’s the biggest event of the year and the biggest inclusive event in Germany. Due to Corona, they didn’t get to practice much and didn’t have many competitions. So it’s really the first big event where they can compete with others, show their best and then qualify for the World Games, which will also take place in Berlin, the year after.

Is this the first time Germany is hosting?

It’s the first time that Germany is hosting the World Games, so it’s really exciting for the German athletes. It was a big milestone when Special Olympics International announced that Germany would be the host.

In Germany, only 7% of the population knows about the Special Olympics. In the US, the number is much higher. So one of our goals is that after the National Games and World Games, the number of people who know about the Special Olympics will also be higher here. 

As the host country, you’re responsible for a lot of the marketing surrounding the National Games and the World Games. Can you tell us a bit about the overall social media strategy for these two events?

We like to show our athletes as they are; show what they can do, and their capacities and capabilities. They’re very talented sportspeople who have a lot of fun doing their sports. So the key factor is our athletes. And not just for social media; the whole marketing strategy is based on them.

Instagram post on the social wall by Special Olympics World Games. The photo shows siblings Timo and Gina Hampel on a tennis court, holding up tennis rackets and smiling at the camera. A pink emoji heart is stamped on the image in the right upper corner. The caption references the International Day of Families in German and English.
Source: Instagram

It’s also in the slogan of our games: “games by athletes for athletes”. So in every campaign, they are at the centre of our communication, and we don’t decide big things without consulting our athletes. Even for the development of our corporate design, logo, and claim “Unbeatable Together”, they have been involved in the whole process. 

Also, some of our colleagues have intellectual or physical disabilities. They work just as hard as other people do. And they can do as much as other people can, and society should be aware that they do not need pity; they just need you to see what they can do.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Special Olympics World Games on the social wall. The photo shows a Arthur Hackenthal, who has Down Syndrome, working on a laptop. He’s got short blonde hair and a green shirt on and is wearing a headset. The caption introduces Arthur as part of the organisation committee staff and links to a ZDF TV segment about him.
A member of the German Organising Committee. Source: Facebook

Given that there’s a new committee for each World Games, did you have to build your social media channels and everything else from scratch?

The last World Games host, Abu Dhabi in 2019, had a big social following. But those channels haven’t been transferred to us or the International Committee. We were a bit frustrated with that, so we decided we wanted to do it differently and leave a legacy.

It hasn’t been done before, but we agreed with the International Committee that we would do what we can to build a large followership, to have many users interacting with us and with our movement. And then, after our games, we will hand our channels over to Special Olympics International, who will take care of them for a couple of weeks before they hand everything over to the Local Organising Committee for the next World Games. That’s also why we decided to have bilingual channels, both German and English.

So how do you build something like that from scratch under a deadline?

We used the channels of Special Olympics Germany, our national organisation, to initialise our campaign: we created a little announcement and a launch campaign for our social channels.

And then, we started with an extensive campaign targeting our stakeholders. We provided toolkits for all Special Olympics organisations worldwide so that they could inform their followers. We wanted to make people aware that we were online and that they could find World Games content on our channels. Now, we’re trying to engage with our followers and gain more every day, every week.

How does the social wall come into this?

The most important thing was that we needed some engagement — not just with our social media followers but also with our website visitors. So my colleague Eva and I decided we wanted to have some interactive elements for our website. We wanted to embed our social content because we have good content and campaigns.

We also have very active followers who like to post about Special Olympics and the movement. We wanted to showcase their user-generated content on our website as well. And that’s why we were looking for a social wall.

We chose because it offers us so many options, which is important for us. We have the National Games and the World Games, and we communicate in German and English. We needed a tool that allows us to filter social content by language and for different websites. And that’s why we decided on in the end.

It’s a great tool, and it’s fun to update our social content and see how our website updates with it. Our website visitors are now engaged a bit more, and we’re hoping it will grow even more. The National Games are happening soon, and then our website reach and visitor count will be much higher. And that’s why we hope the engagement with the wall and our posts will also grow in the next couple of weeks.

Screenshot of the Special Olympics #Berlin2022 website with the social wall embedded.
The #Berlin2022 social wall is embedded on the Berlin 2022 website.

How do you promote the social wall?

As for now, not that much. But we also know that we have to dive more into the social wall. With the National Games coming up, we want to promote it more, showcase it at the venues and tell people that they can use event-specific hashtags to post directly to our wall and our website.

We are very happy with the way it is right now; because the focus in the first couple of weeks was on having an interactive tool on our website. We wanted to showcase our content and the user-generated content. So that was the goal for the first couple of weeks.

But now, we want to engage more, gain more followers, and have more event-specific hashtags. And then next year, for the World Games, we want to run promotional events, specific hashtag campaigns, show the wall on a big screen at events, and so on. So there are different things we want to do in the next couple of weeks, months and years. But for now, the first aim is to showcase our content and the content of our followers on the website.

What content do you hope to see on the social wall, and how are you planning to get people to contribute?

We’re really lucky when it comes to user-generated content because our athletes want to be shown. They want their sports to be shown, their abilities to be shown. That’s why they provide us with good content.

Most of our athletes are very active on social media. Many send us pictures and little training videos via direct message. It’s really cool content of excellent quality. It’s very important to us to always link to the accounts of our athletes and the workshops for the disabled where they work to raise awareness. We noticed more and more that there’s so much interaction between athletes and with other stakeholders. And that’s very cool. 

When they send you content, do you upload that to the wall directly?

First, we take a deeper look to see if we want to post it directly without doing creative work on it. Sometimes we do a bit of creative work so that it fits into our corporate design guidelines. But if it fits, we post it directly.

Are you hoping for content from spectators and interested people as well?

We definitely want to see content from spectators. But, also, one of our main target groups is our volunteers. We will have around 3.5 thousand volunteers working at the National Games and are looking for up to 20,000 for the World Games. They get a volunteer handbook beforehand, and we promote lots of our social stuff in the volunteer handbook because they’re the ones who will be at the events and can contribute content.

Screenshot of a Tweet. User Laura_CSW quote tweets a Special Olympics tweet promoting tickets for the National Games. Laura’s QT reads: “On the last day of #VolunteersWeek... excited to have received my shifts for volunteering at the Special Olympics National Games later this month. #berlin2022”
Source: Twitter

We’ll also have a team of social media volunteer and videographer volunteer, who will work together as a talent team, collecting as much content as possible. We’ll have professional photographers and TV stations, which will produce TV clips and little online clips that we can use afterwards. So the volunteer social media team will focus on the emotional stuff — funny reels, little interviews, and some quizzes with the spectators and athletes.

We also asked our colleagues to send us videos and photos. We’re just a small digital team, with one person doing social media, one person doing the website and newsletter, and me overlooking it all, so we can’t be everywhere at the same time. We’re not allowing anyone to post it directly at the moment, but we’re asking them to gather as much content as possible.

We also have a Host Town Program for the World Games. Before all the delegations come to Berlin, they will be hosted by a community within Germany so that they can acclimatise a bit. We’ve had more than 200 applications, so there will be more than 200 communities hosting athletes next year.

Screenshot of a Tweet by Special Olympics Africa Region on the social media wall. The image shows four people celebrating and dancing. Three of them are dressed in light blue Special Olympics t-shirts, the fourth is wearing a bright blue Adidas training jacket. All four are wearing hats made out of balloons on their heads. A person in the background is waving a large flag. The caption reads: “🇩🇪Know where to go🇩🇪  The host towns & international delegations of the #SpecialOlympicsWorldGames #Berlin2023 have been assigned! More information about the #HostTownProgram here ▶️ @SOWG_Berlin2023  #UnbeatableTogether”
Source: Twitter

And the host towns are also one of our main contributors. They interact with us and provide a lot of user-generated content because they’re looking forward to the delegations coming to their communities. And this is where we hope to get lots of content. There have already been many posts from the host towns because they’re very keen on social media. They’re already tagging us and using the correct hashtag.

You’re using manual moderation for content that comes in directly via social media, right?

Yes, we are on manual moderation just to have a look. Because as we’re using lots of hashtags, such as #Berlin2022 and #Berlin2023, there’s lots of content that doesn’t directly relate to us and would be displayed. But thanks to the manual moderation, we have the chance to decide which content is being shown. So we do that every morning.

How much work goes into that?

It’s every morning, but just a couple of minutes — 15 or 20 minutes. My colleague Eva does it while she has her morning coffee.

Is this your first time running a social wall, and do you see the National Games as a bit of a trial run for the World Games?

It is a bit of a trial run for the World Games. The National Games usually are also called a “test event” by those who host the World Games. So we are trying the social wall out to see what we can do with it, but we do this with all other processes as well to see what we can do to improve for the World Games.

We currently have four social walls: one each in German and English for the National Games and the World Games. The slogan is the same: Unbeatable Together. So the hashtags are as well. But we take a look at which content is relevant for which website and make sure it’s shown there.

Is there anything out of the ordinary regarding promotion and marketing that you’re doing?

One of our key goals is to work with ambassadors. We’re not calling them influencers because we do not want to use that term, but we’re calling them ambassadors who want to contribute to our movement and want their followers to know about Special Olympics.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Tim Shriver on the social wall. The photo shows Shriver shaking Arthur Hackenthal’s hand. Hackenthal is wearing a Special Olympics tshirt. In the caption, Shriver mentions how happy he is to meet talented athletes like Arthur from Special Olympics Deutschland, who interviewed him.
Source: Facebook

We also work closely with many TV stations in Germany because there hasn’t been much coverage in the past. We have a “TV Alliance” with networks such as ARD, ZDF, Sky and Telekom — all the big media houses. During the Olympic Games, TV spots were shown on ZDF and Das Erste, which is a very, very big thing.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Kanu Brandenburg on the social wall. The photo shows three people sitting at a round moderation tale in a TV studio. An insert in the background says “Special Olympics #ZusammenUnschlagbar”. The caption mentions that the photo was taken during a broadcast on Sky.
Source: Facebook

I think what’s unique about our strategy is the cooperation with the TV stations, the ambassador concept and the showcasing of our athletes at the heart of each campaign. 

Our takeaways

Honestly, where to even start? There’s so much going on here that we can learn from, so let’s dive right in.

Create an overarching strategy

First, with two events tied as closely together as the National Games and World Games, it makes sense to create an overarching strategy that can span both. The hashtags for both events are built on the same principle, which makes it easier for fans to remember the hashtags. And that means more hashtag use which means a busier social media wall. Having a strategy that overlaps might even save you a little work when creating assets and guidelines, which is especially important when working with a small team.

Expand your idea of UGC

The #Berlin2023 team has realised something extremely valuable about user-generated content: UGC can come from more than just the most obvious side. It doesn’t just mean content from fans and spectators, so it’s wise to involve other stakeholders too. In this case, that means athletes, volunteers, ambassadors, and even colleagues from other teams.

Especially when a digital team is pretty small, you can use all the help you can get. So don’t hesitate to reach out and ask your stakeholders to send you content. People love to help. They’re already invested in your campaign and will happily contribute to its success.

I also love the idea of having a dedicated social media/videographer volunteer team who can pay attention to all that emotional content that works so well on social media. They’ll be front and centre where things are happening and have enough background information to know what content is most important to grab.

Practice makes perfect

Don’t worry about seeing one event as a trial run for another, even bigger, event. After all, practice makes perfect, and each event will make your processes better. Doing a trial run also doesn’t mean it’s a bad run — social walls are pretty easy to set up and run, but you can always tweak and improve things over time, making your social wall use even better. I’m utterly confident that the social media for Special Olympics National Games Germany will be excellent, but they’ll also be able to learn and improve on some things for the World Games the year after, meaning fewer unknown variables and less stress for the team because they’ll have already pulled it off once.

Digital 🤝🏽 traditional media 

Now, of course, we’re all about digital media here at, given our business is social media. But I always like to highlight that it’s important not to knock “old” media either. Traditional media can be tied into digital campaigns; hashtags can be advertised on billboards, TV ads, radio spots, etc. And as we can see, the collaboration with big media houses has already given the Special Olympics a big boost.

LinkedIn post by Special Olympics World Games Berlin on the social wall. The photo shows four people, one of them wearing a Special Olympics branded jumper, posing with an outdoor advertising wall promoting the National Games in Berlin.
Out-of-home advertising for the Special Olympics National Games Berlin. Source: LinkedIn

Make your social wall work for you

If you’re running a campaign involving more than one language, then our language filters will be an absolute lifesaver. You can set different filters for each of your social walls, choosing one or more languages that determine which posts will be shown on your wall.

Another feature that can help you is Manual Moderation. Manual Moderation lets you curate the content on your social wall, especially if you use hashtags that are a bit more common. It’s a great solution if you don’t want to compromise on your ideal hashtag but do want to keep unwanted content off your wall.

Social walls over time

But one of the most interesting things about this showcase is something we’ll only be able to talk about a year from now. I think it’ll be super interesting to check back in with the team around the time of the Special Olympics World Games and see how things have been going.

Will the strategy change from #Berlin2022 to #Berlin2023? How will the experience gained by the team during the 2022 event influence future social wall use? Will athletes, spectators and volunteers produce even more UGC once they’ve gotten used to the idea? I, for one, am already curious.

If you are curious as well, sign up for our newsletter, and you won’t miss the Special Olympics showcase update next year!

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Feature pic: © Special Olympics Deutschland/Sascha Klahn