How Coca-Cola has cultivated the biggest Facebook brand page

On a page that varies by country, the bottler reaches out to 36 million fans and maintains multilingual monitoring, says its social media strategist.

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The “fans-first” strategy that made Coca-Cola the biggest brand on Facebook—with 36 million “likes”—didn’t begin with a huge marketing effort from the global soft drink behemoth.

Coca-Cola would have preferred to cultivate the 100-plus fan-created pages across the social platform, cross-pollinate content, and encourage a thousand pages to bloom.

Facebook changed all that four years ago when it demanded that Coke collapse all the micro-sites into mega-pages. The 125-year-old bottler has since concentrated its efforts on a single brand page, but it has never swayed from fans who show a missionary zeal in their devotion.

“Most brands have to figure out what to do with social platforms,” says Michael Donnelly, group director of worldwide interactive marketing for Coca-Cola. “In almost every single case, we didn’t necessarily have to figure it out, because people figured it out before us.”

The Facebook page was created by two Los Angeles fans who remain active brand ambassadors. From their efforts, Coke has developed a single page for multilingual communications worldwide.

It encourages fans and broadcasts its message of happiness from a site that is beloved by followers but under constant assault from activists, political loudmouths, pornographers, and critics seeking a worldwide pulpit.

One worldwide page

Some brands create several Facebook pages for different products or geographic regions. Not Coke.

Nearly all fans worldwide access Coca-Cola’s Facebook efforts through a single page. But what they see differs according to their location, Donnelly says. Viewers in the United States don’t see the same page as those in Bali.

The page is supervised by a leadership and strategy staff of seven at the Atlanta-based company, which posted revenue of $6.71 billion in 2010. But employees in more than 200 countries worldwide decide on what the Facebook page will look like depending upon where their customers view it, selecting options from content provided by the company.

Rather than try to speak to 36 million fans worldwide in a way that’s relevant to all cultures, the beverage maker has built proprietary tools that enable its local agencies and marketers to schedule what they want to say, right down to specific cities, countries, and languages.

“Even something that aligns with our brand talking about happiness, we really can’t predict whether it’s happy at every single moment everywhere in the world,” Donnelly says. “We actually are micro-trafficking messages to 100-plus countries every single day.”

There is geographically specific content, such as the Arctic Home campaign to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund, which appears on Coke’s U.S. site. But messages in multiple tongues constantly scroll down the page.

Finding content to share

Coke seeks online content and asks the creator if it can share it with viewers on Facebook: pictures, fans’ songs, paeans to the fizzy drink, videos posted in different platforms.

“We’ve never had anyone say no,” Donnelly says. “They’re very excited to hear from us. In doing so, in asking permission, we also ask for the story behind it.”

In one instance, Coke came across a photo of Coke cans in a driveway, arranged in a heart shape and dusted with fall leaves. Upon asking the creator to reproduce the art on its Facebook page, it found out the cans were part of an 8-year-old girl’s school project on the heart. Her mother helped her, turning a pretty picture into a story with educational and mother/daughter overtones.

Most major brands use social media to push their products and boost sales, Donnelly says. Nothing wrong with that, but Coke’s approach is different.

“If you look at anything we do on Facebook, you’ll see it’s very, very fan centric,” he says.

If you post “I love Coke” 15 times a day, don’t expect the company to answer “We love you, too, buddy,” every time. But it does want to keep social media social. On Facebook and Twitter, Coke seeks to respond to every viable inquiry.

With a megaphone as big as Coke’s Facebook page, it is inevitable that critics would crash the party and vandals would splash around their cyber-graffiti.

Coke has a long-term listening partner. (The company declined to name any vendors.) Its multilingual staff is constantly looking over the page through a program that Coca-Cola calls “real-time marketing.”

Multilingual monitoring

One woman monitoring the page speaks five languages, Donnelly says. Although even a staff of linguists couldn’t possibly speak every language out there, this woman was able to watch 90 percent of the traffic on Facebook.

What do they do with off-brand remarks? If you want to praise Pepsi, Coca-Cola won’t strike your comment. It is, the company insists, the people’s page. But it does have clear “house rules” that state it will cut remarks and links that it considers defaming, profane, or off topic.

Leaps in technology for watching social media have made monitoring far more efficient in recent years.

“We have the same staff as a year ago, even though we’re well over twice the size, as far as participation,” Donnelly says, adding, “it doesn’t seem like much more than a year ago I was sitting here every night cutting every bad picture.”

Even so, sometimes things sometimes slip by briefly. As I spoke to Donnelly while looking at the page recently, we spotted a pornographic photo and link titled “blazing hot teen.” It had been up for seven minutes. He deleted it.

“For seven minutes we had naked pictures up there, and that’s just the way it is,” he said, sounding chagrined.

Another link popped up for a video accusing Coca-Cola of depleting well water in India. He left it up.

Another problem is people seeking to promote unrelated political causes on the Facebook page. When you’ve got the biggest Facebook following on the planet, many activists want access to your audience.

“The Egyptian uprising was a real big one,” he says. “The riots in London were a big one. Battles in Gaza are a big one. We literally have hundreds and hundreds of terrible photos of people trying to make political statements. Again, they’re removed because they’re completely irrelevant to Coca-Cola. If there’s a relevance to Coca-Cola, we leave it.”

It exists, after all, for the fans.

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