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Coca-Cola Finds Online Buzz Doesn’t Boost Sales, then Defends Social Media as ‘Crucial’

So you’ve probably heard the news that Coca-Cola executives delivered last Monday at the Advertising Research Foundation’s conference in New York. Coca-Cola’s study found that online buzz did not directly impact their short term sales.   The social media world was immediately abuzz. Two days later we heard from Wendy Clark, senior VP-integrated marketing, who says social media is crucial to Coca-Cola’s marketing.

People have been voicing off on this topic for the past week, and we figured it’s time to weigh in ourselves. Is generating online buzz not worth the effort?  Or is social media ‘crucial’?  Which is it? 

It’s easy to proclaim that social buzz is unimportant. After all, we expect to see results, either for ourselves, our bosses, or our companies. If online engagement isn’t raising sales, let’s stop wasting our time, right?! As Clark says, “today’s progressive marketers know better.”

We’re mistaken if we think we can ignore the web world. And no, I’m not just saying that because we provide web marketing services. We live in a world of integrated communications. By focusing exclusively on one channel we risk missing the big picture. Clark recognizes this:

None of our plans are simply social, or TV, or mobile or experiential. On the contrary, it’s the combination of owned, earned, shared and paid media connections – with social playing a crucial role at the heart of our activations – that creates marketplace impact, consumer engagement, brand love and brand value.

Granted, some of this is hard to quantify. “Brand love” and “brand value” are important, and yet for some top-level executives, proving the impact these have is difficult.

Most marketers understand that we can’t expect to see immediate results. For instance, as the original article points out, Coca-Cola’s study found digital display advertising “on average to be 90% as effective as TV at generating sales on a per-impression basis”. Social media marketing is not an instant gratification landscape, and if we’re only in it for that instant boost, it’s probably not the place for us to be. Building online communities and buzz is no simple task, especially when we talk about earned media and true brand advocates.

We’re also mistaken if we think we have to be on social media to such an extent that we don’t have to show any return on investment. It’s this lack of immediate ROI that had so many people jumping in excitement at Coke’s first announcement–it was justification for the building frustration felt by those who have not seen or have not understood the benefits of online buzz. It’s a great opportunity to throw away social media efforts and move back to more traditional marketing.

So what do we do?

We recognize that this is still a new landscape. Our measurement tools continue to evolve while the metrics we measure evolve as well. Yes, we must prove the importance of online buzz, but we must also value a community of 61 million Facebook fans. We must look for other ways to measure engagement and ROI. From Clark’s post, it sounds like that’s already in the works:

In beta testing with Facebook, we’ve been able to track closed-loop sales from site exposure to in-store purchase with very promising initial results that are above norms for what we see with other media.

This is an opportunity for further investigation. What results do we see from integrated campaigns? How can we measure ROI, more creatively than we may have in the past? How do we measure sentiment accurately?

This is a great chance for reflection in the marketing and advertising realms. While there are the immediate emotional reactions (that’s so true! that’s impossible! fire the social media team!), the true test will come in continuing to find ways to bridge this gap–to remember the importance of online buzz to the integrated media landscape, to show the relevance of social media to the bottom line, and to recognize that its relevance is not yet as easily determined as some traditional marketing avenues. We are still navigating this frontier, after all.

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