Coca-Cola drinks the social media Kool-Aid

Is it that we just can't admit that social media is not a money maker? Do we not want to face up to reality that social media is increasingly becoming a very expensive way of generating PR that cannot be measured? Isn't it time to just come out and say that brands are being coerced into spending a lot of money to give away free shit (merch, ringtones, screen savers, t-shirts, trips to vegas, cars, etc) because a bunch of social media people with impressive sounding titles have pre-determined incorrectly that the mantra of society is "What's in it for me?"

One would think.

And yet. Here's Coke. As reported on myriad pages including Adage and Smart Planet, all the social media chatter and buzz is adding up to next to nada in sales for Coke.

The Senior Manager Market Ninja Guru, Eric Schmidt, who was quick to defend the findings as only covering buzz and not your usual liking and sharing and watching snackable elements (i.e. content, i.e. tv commercials on youtube) doesn't want to rule it out.

And yet.

...when Coca-Cola put buzz sentiment data into the same analytical framework it uses to evaluate other digital media, Mr. Schmidt said, "We didn't see any statistically significant relationship between our buzz and our short-term sales."

That was at a 95% confidence level, but even stepping back from that high standard, he said showed buzz affecting sales by only 0.01%.

So it doesn't work. And yet Coke is still defending it. On Coke's on site, Wendy Clark, who goes by the most impressive title Senior VP-integrated Marketing Communications and Capabilities--also defended the practice of spending cash to chase buzz. While Ms. Clark is at least rational enough to concede no one particular media buy can do it all, and social media is merely one part of so many other media buys, she starts to lose me as soon as she uses words like "shareable" and "webisodes."

Moreover she loses me entirely with this paragraph:

Reach, engagement, love and value are the markers of success we use for our campaigns. We measure these in a variety of ways, often with our media partners. 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.

First off--Coke is a business, not a personality contest. Regardless of what is being said here, the measure of any successful business is sales. If you are a global brand, even a 2% drop can make an insane difference. So the idea that if sales of Coke were flatlining everyone would be A-OK as long as buzz was being generated on social media sites is ridiculous.

Secondly, her intonation that in Facebook beta testing, they can track sales from site exposure to actual purchases has me feeling just a wee bit skeptical. Unless you are tracking the five geeks out there who purchased a coke on their smart phones after seeing a Facebook ad, there can only be a few options to explain this:

1. Facebook is making shit up. (That's my vote)
2. They have invented some super secret way to monitor our offline purchases.
3. They are now putting cookies in vending machines.
4.People are ordering a lot of Coke online.
5. People are spending five minutes at the 7-11 register bothering to fill out surveys on how they decided to buy Coke.
6. People are being paid 250 bucks in a focus group to say whatever Coke wants them to say.

Because I fail to see how this can actually be monitored otherwise.

And to her last point that the initial results are promising and above norms of other media-- what media exactly? Is someone buying Coke from exposure on Facebook, or from a friends' chatter, more than they by seeing a cinema ad? Doubt it, since I can buy coke right outside the theater and I can't do that through my iPad. Or are you talking social media on Facebook as opposed to Pinterest?

Sorry. It all seems a bit too vague. I initially thought that brands like Coke and Oreo and Walgreens were being hoodwinked. They had imbibed the Kool-Aid to the point of excess. Seriously, does Coke really believe it sells happiness instead of sugar water that may be a large contributing factor to obesity?

My answer is, no. No they don't. They couldn't. No large corporation is that naive. They are merely staying "on brand."

Coke watched as Pepsi ditched its traditional ad spend in favor of Refreshing everything on in a cause marketing stunt to generate buzz. And then they watched as Pepsi sales dropped. Not only did they drop, but Pepsi dropped to third place behind Coke and Diet Coke.

So yeah, it's all well and good for a brand to implement social media, if it's merely part of an overall communication and they don't ditch their traditional ad spend and if they understand that until someone really monetizes buzz, it's all a buncha nothing. But it seems like an excessive waste to me, and a long way to go for 'happiness.' Especially when the truth is less sugary: At the end of the day, the only people whose happiness you are really concerned about is your shareholders.

By the way, Coke? Last time I checked, happiness still is free. So I don't need to buy your brand or share your buzz or you even see your ads to have it.