NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Pop quiz: Who has the most popular page on Facebook? Barack Obama. Who's second? Coca-Cola. Yes, sugared water runs second only to the leader of the free world. Who was it again that said people don't want to be friends with brands?
In late August 2008, aspiring actor Dusty Sorg was hunting for a Coca-Cola fan page he could join on Facebook. He didn't find one that seemed legitimate so he hunted down a high-resolution digital image of a Coke can, uploaded it to Facebook and made a page.
Popularity a mystery
And the page grew. And grew. There are 253 pages on Facebook devoted to Coca-Cola, but for some reason, Mr. Sorg's page -- which he runs with his friend Michael Jedrzejewski, a writer -- took off. The guys weren't sure why theirs ended up with millions of fans -- Facebook fan pages, at least last year, were relatively static, and the guys said they had been pretty inactive on it as they got busy during the winter holidays.
And most people can't actually do that much with branded page -- unless a brand is putting dollars behind it. Which Coke didn't.
Coca-Cola still remains perplexed over why Messrs. Sorg and Jedrzejewski's page took off.
"We've discussed a dozen hypotheses about why it took off," said Michael Donnelly, director of worldwide interactive marketing at Coca-Cola Co. One theory the company keeps coming back to, he said, was the quality of the photo -- a crisp, high-resolution image of a Coke can covered with a thin layer of condensation. "For us as marketers, luckily it was exactly right -- the can we had in the marketplace. ... It grabs you." He said another theory is that Messrs. Sorg and Jedrzejewski had very active, expressive "social graphs," i.e., their network of Facebook friends. But "we can't measure that," he said.
Facebook Page Statistics -- Top Pages
|Name||# of Fans||Daily Growth Rate||Weekly Growth Rate|
|8||Windows Live Messenger||2,469,402||0.13%||2.75%|
Problems with the page
As the page picked up fans, it also racked up spam and obscene comments -- issues that can plague many large pages on the social network. In November, Facebook decided to start enforcing a policy that says anyone creating a branded Facebook "page" must be authorized by or associated with the brand. Independent Facebook users could still create homages to brands, but they must live as a "group" or fan club.
"The problem was they had created a page, not a group," said Mr. Donnelly. Facebook made the decision to either close the page or let Coca-Cola take it over. Coca-Cola instead proposed an alternative: Let the creators keep the page but share it with a few of Coca-Cola's senior interactive folks.
"We threw a variable to Facebook and said we're interested, but we'd rather walk away from it than have it be perceived that we caused this action," Mr. Donnelly said.
Over the December holidays, he got in touch with Messrs. Sorg and Jedrzejewski to explain to them that this was a Facebook-driven change, and asked if they'd want to join him in administering it.
A friendly approach
Now normally when a giant multinational company calls a consumer about something the consumer has created in that company's brand name or image, it's not a good sign. And initially Mr. Jedrzejewski said he was worried about it.
"Everyone has this vision that if something like this happens, the big company will send you off to Guantanamo," he said. "This was exactly the opposite."
Coke instead flew the guys down to Atlanta for a few days of meetings, a tour of the World of Coke museum and a visit to the company's legendary archives. It was a friendly, not heavy-handed approach, Mr. Jedrzejewski said.
"We talked openly about ideas, the future of the fan page," he said.
Coke's actions in sharing the page are indicative of not only the lessons the beverage giant has learned in the social-media space but also proof that big brands can tread gracefully in social media.
The company has come a long way. Its initial reaction to a Diet Coke-Mentos viral video sensation in 2006 was that the stunt didn't fit the brand's personality -- after all, people are meant to drink Diet Coke, not use it to make geysers. Now the company appears to be more at ease with its consumers creating content on its behalf -- and it's largely eschewed a destination-centric philosophy as it has recognized that its expressive fans are everywhere.
Mr. Donnelly recounts how in the early days of the web, big marketers would define success by how much traffic came to their websites -- and they've only recently become comfortable with the fact they can deliver a message through gaming, rich video and other places across the web. The same thing happened in Second Life, when marketers busily built islands, or destinations, within the virtual world. And it's a natural tendency in social networking.
"This page is a fan page and happens to be the biggest one, but we recognize that when you do a search you see 253," he said. And when it comes to communities, they recognize they need to ask advice, counsel and permission before engaging. "We don't want to be a big brand there doing big-brand advertising."