Media Mavens 2009

Michael Donnelly

Group Director-Worldwide Interactive, Coca-Cola

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NEW YORK ( -- Three years ago Coca-Cola was pilloried in social-media circles for its chilly response to the Diet Coke-Mentos videos. Today it stands out as a big marketer who "gets" social media. One big reason for the change: Michael Donnelly, group director of worldwide interactive at Coca-Cola.

Michael Donnelly
Michael Donnelly
At Coke, the system of wrangling the social Wild West goes something like this: Mr. Donnelly, a 43-year-old Johnson & Johnson vet and former Army reservist who came to Coke in 2006, leads a small team that comprises Coke's social "center of excellence." It has identified 25 tactical social approaches that help the brand meet its marketing objectives. It lends structure to a chaotic space and offers best practices to teams around the world; for example, if awareness is the objective, a viral- or advertising-based tactic may be the most effective social-campaign.

"It's how we've tried to remain sane in the space," Mr. Donnelly said. "The real importance of that is we're not getting sucked into the hottest thing out there."

Greg Verdino, chief strategy officer at Crayonville, said Mr. Donnelly is a rare big marketer who gets the risk of experimentation. The "two sins of mass marketers," he said, "is they're so risk-averse that they try nothing or they go in and expect a big bang." Mr. Donnelly, he said, has almost a venture-capitalist mentality, where you try several things, you have a few big payoffs and you learn from the rest.

One of its biggest payoffs came earlier this year, when it earned plaudits for its graceful handling of its biggest Facebook page dedicated to the brand. Created last fall by a couple of super fans, the page grew to 2.5 million members before it was in danger of getting shut down because a Facebook policy required creators of brand pages to be affiliated with the brand represented. Rather than shut down or take over the page, Mr. Donnelly spent his Christmas holidays asking the creators how they felt about co-administrator duties. The pair agreed and shortly after were whisked to Atlanta for a tour of Coke headquarters. They will be involved with future Coke marketing initiatives.

While Facebook might be the brand's biggest presence in social networking, it's certainly not the only one. Rather than build a brand page and spend its time and effort recruiting fans, it's now seeking out its fans whereever they are -- and facilitating their love for Coke.

"For years brands built [web] pages and expected people to come to them," he said. "Then you had Second Life and brands went out and built islands and expected people to come to them. Well, people don't actually do that. Whatever they're doing on the web, they're not there to be hijacked and taken to wherever you want to take them."

Today, Coke "fishes where the fish are."

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