width=275While it may come as no surprise that six million-plus fans of Barack Obama have earned the U.S. president the number one page on Facebook, the next two largest Facebook fan pages are surprising: as of April 2009, a page devoted to The Coca-Cola Company (boasting nearly three and half million devoted fans and gaining an average 75,000 fans each month) holds steady as the second largest page, followed closely by a page touting the charms of the chocolaty, hazelnut spread Nutella, a European mainstay.

Even more surprising is that The Coca-Cola Company had nothing to do with the creation of the Facebook page celebrating its products. The genesis came from two Coca-Cola-loving Los Angeles residents, Dusty Sorg and Michael Jedrzejewski. When Sorg hunted for a Coca-Cola Facebook page to friend, he found almost 200 pages, but nothing he deemed legitimate. So with the help of Jedrzejewski, he launched a Facebook page dedicated to the world's most recognized soft drink. Within seven months, the page's fan base topped three million.

That number turned the heads of Facebook administrators and Coca-Cola executives alike. When Facebook instituted a policy prohibiting regular Facebook users like Sorg and Jedrzejewski from creating branded pages (and asked their namesake companies to take over the pages or Facebook would shut them down), Coca-Cola flew Sorg and Jedrzejewski to its Atlanta headquarters to talk about how the company could assist the creators with the page without intruding. Adam Brown, director of Digital Communications, The Coca-Cola Company, says of the move, as well as of the company's overall attitude toward social media: We're taking the laissez-faire approach.


flickr.com/Christian Sisson

But is Coca-Cola's decision to adopt a hands-off strategy wise?

According to Sundar Bharadwaj, associate professor of marketing at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, the company doesn't have much of a choice. There is absolutely no way any company can control the marketplace, he explains. If a company tries to shut down a Facebook page or control content on other sites, it'll be worse off, adds Bharadwaj, who is also the associate director of the Emory Marketing Institute. The smart thing is to try to embrace it, and the smarter companies are clearly taking that approach.

Bharadwaj and Coca-Cola's Brown recently participated in a panel discussion, How to Manage Your Brand in Today's Market. Sponsored by the Atlanta Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators and AIGA, the professional association for design, the discussion was moderated by Steve Beshara, former chief branding officer of TurboChef, and current president of Vista Branding. The panel also included Kevin Smith, chief marketing officer, Rollins, Inc.

Reaching out to consumers today takes a multilayered approach. According to eMarketer, total U.S. advertising spending in 2009 is estimated to reach $25.7 billion, a growth rate of just under 9 percent. But some advertising channels-especially direct mail and print advertising-are taking a hit. Television advertising, down about four percent, is also feeling the pinch of a bad economy. However, the Internet Advertising market is proving resilient, due in part to marketers seeking lower cost alternatives. Companies like Coca-Cola realize that not everyone is Internet savvy and that traditional media still has value, but if these companies follow their customers to the places they frequent, they find themselves traversing the Internet. Our homepage isn't Coca-Cola.com, says Brown. It's Google.

Marketing and advertising dollars follow customers. Independent technology and market research company Forrester expects marketer expenditures on display media, search, email, mobile and social media to approach $55 billion by 2014 (more than double the 2008 total of $23 billion).

While social media marketing budgets should experience the biggest percentage increase (Forrester estimates 34 percent growth over the next several years), search marketing is expected to retain the biggest piece of the pie. The main reason is analytics. Companies can identify who visits what sites, how often, and what percentage of site visitors are converted to customers. Currently Google controls the lion's share of the search market, but there is no shortage of search-oriented sites poised to grab market share from Google. A site gaining momentum, notes Bharadwaj, is Kosmix.com.

Kosmix's creators point to personalization as key, and they are attempting to reinvent online publishing-Kosmix's users build a personal newspaper with topics they're interested in. Kosmix then aligns online ads with content relevant to each consumer. It's the future of search, notes Bharadwaj. People are looking to divert their search spend and anything that can leverage conversions, they'll use them. It's not just about building brand awareness, adds Bharadwaj. It's about influencing behavior.

Another way to influence behavior and build brand is to embrace a company's brand advocates-as Coca-Cola did with Sorg and Jedrzejewski. Every day, Coca-Cola brands are mentioned 1500 times on various blogs and places such as the Coca-Cola Facebook page. We try to market to advocates and use them to promote our brand, says Brown. We're focused on how to attract the pearls. To ensure the company keeps these fans advocating, it continues to improve customer satisfaction.

While it is virtually impossible to have every post on every blog and website be a good one, what Brown has discovered is that most times, the community has come to our defense. If, however, someone posts inappropriate content, Coca-Cola's laissez-faire attitude doesn't apply. We're prepared to fight fire with fire-and to do so quickly, explains Brown. How quickly? It's imperative to strike back within four to six hours, he says. News cycles have gone from twenty-four to twelve to eight to six to four hours, he says. Once inaccuracies are broadcast, they can live on for months and years.

Every consumer has the power to broadcast to the world, noted moderator Beshara: The power has shifted to the consumer.

Last March, this was made clear when candy maker Mars, Inc. decided to experiment and replaced its Skittles homepage with the candy's Twitter stream. While the move increased traffic to the site (1332% in one day according to Hitwise), individual Tweets not only praised Skittles, but some included racial epithets, profanity and comments about competitors. I thought it was a very brave idea, says Brown, although he added that the idea was flawed. I don't think they looked two, three steps ahead. As communicators and marketers, we need to stay two, three steps ahead.

According to Bharadwaj, the nature of marketing is no longer about a company instilling faith or creating a trust me attitude. The marketer of today's skill set focuses on monitoring, measuring and demonstrating the value of new types of spends to senior management. Additionally, there is a balancing act between marketing and communications and legal and security issues in terms of protecting a company's trademark(s).

At Coca-Cola, Brown oversees a newly created department, the office of digital communications and social media. This office operates within Coca-Cola's public affairs and communications department and in collaboration with global interactive marketing, IT and consumer affairs, as well as legal and strategic security.

Other companies, such as the Atlanta-based pest control company Rollins, Inc., have added an analytics practice to help them better understand the return on investment (ROI) of marketing and advertising in these new types of media. At the moment, the easiest place to demonstrate ROI is search marketing, but the nascent monitoring/analytics field is attracting players equipped with tools capable of monitoring blogs, websites and Twitter feeds. One such company, Scout Labs (www.scoutlabs.com), offers social media monitoring for as little as $99/month, though some companies charge significantly more. The Scout Labs Web-based application tracks things such as persistent searches and buzz, and can both tag and kill posts-all in real time.

Employees are an important part of the mix as well. Brown thinks of Coca-Cola's 97,000 employees as ambassadors, he says. How do we empower them and arm them with the right message? At Rollins, the company is sorting out how to use employees to create value, says Kevin Smith, chief marketing officer and co-participant in the panel discussion. I don't think anyone has conquered that.

While searching for ways to harness new media and justify new marketing spends may be complicated, the mission behind it is relatively simple: To meet people with the right message at the right time through the right media, explains Brown.

For these new media marketers, there's no rest. From a consumer's point of view, we're always on. Devices give us the opportunity to track media in multiple ways. Especially the younger population-they're completely on, notes Bharadwaj. There's no stepping back from that.

Photo: Steve Beshara, left, Adam Brown, Kevin Smith, and Goizueta's Sundar Bharadwaj on the far right.