Coke research shows buzz doesn't equal sales


For years now, advertisers have regarded online clicks, likes and buzz as the Holy Grail of marketing.

A March 18 presentation at the Advertising Research Foundation’s Re:think 2013 conference challenged that article of faith, reminding marketers that online buzz – an amalgam of Facebook, Twitter, blog and YouTube comments – is only a sales tool, and not a particularly effective one at that.


According to extensive and rigorous research, said Coca-Cola senior manager-marketing insights Eric Schmidt, “We didn’t see any statistically significant relationship between our buzz and our short-term sales.”

“When Coke put buzz sentiment data into the same analytical framework it uses to evaluate other digital media” at a 95 percent confidence level, Advertising Age reported, the numbers showed buzz affecting sales by only 0.01 percent. That’s one ten-thousandth of total sales.

This is not sour grapes, incidentally, because Coke has more Facebook fans – 61.5 million of them – than any other brand.

The most effective medium

Coke’s research also showed that the most effective medium for generating sales per impression was – are you ready for this? – print.

Television was slightly less effective than print.

Digital display advertising was about 90 percent as effective as TV (and much cheaper in terms of media costs).

Radio was about three-quarters as effective as television, and search was half as effective.

One difference between these advertising media and buzz is that you can measure how many people are actually seeing, hearing or reading the sales message, while knowing how many consumers buzz reaches is largely a matter of guesswork. It’s like analyzing a television campaign on the basis of how many commercials you air rather than the size of the audience.

That’s why “it’s important to get digital reach and viewership data on a par with TV and to accurately measure buzz in order to get more accurate return-on-investment analysis for all media, Mr. Schmidt said.”

Defenders of the faith

Schmidt was quick to downplay what Ad Age called “stunning” findings as “by no means a generalized result that applies to all industries.”

But even so, True Believers were ready to pounce on him.

Coke’s announcement about the ineffectiveness of buzz “drove everyone on the Internet to start buzzing about it,” blogged public relations strategist Ryan Holliday. “[D]ozens weighed in…driving thousands of tweets, likes and comments between them.”

Holliday tends to shrug off the findings with the fervor of the faithful. “You can’t say for sure why or how [online buzz] works, but clearly when there is enough noise in the right circles, it drives real people to do real things.” This even though “the idea that advertising or chatter on social media is going to drive short-term sales of soda is stupid…I’m not even sure that social media buzz can lift sales in the long term.” [original emphasis] Nonetheless, “one thing is well established: social media is incredibly effective at taking something totally unknown and making it known.”

One of Schmidt’s colleagues, Wendy Clark, Coke’s senior VP-integrated marketing communications and capabilities, was quick to defend her turf. “Much has been made lately of social media marketing perhaps not pulling its weight in terms of business results,” she wrote.

Indeed, a recent study from my own company suggested that social buzz or chatter does not generate sales lift. And, taken in isolation, this is true. But, today’s progressive marketers know better…[I]t’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.

She backs up these statements of faith in two ways.

First, she says, Coke’s 2012 Olympics campaign “included 60 different types of content” and it was just wonderful.

Second, she correctly states that Coke’s target audience of teens and 20somethings use television, laptops, smartphones, tablets and other screens – often simultaneously – for their media consumption. While this makes a good case for, say, online display advertising, which Coke’s own research shows to be 90 percent as effective as television, that has noting to do with buzz, which is 89.99 percent less effective.

Consumers know better

Mediabistro cites a March 19 Yahoo! Finance page online poll which asked, “Coca-Cola says social media buzz has no measurable impact on its bottom line. Does social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.) influence what you buy?”

The answers side much more with the heretical Mr. Schmidt than with True Believers Clark and Holliday.

Of more than 50,000 responses, 85 percent said “never.” Only 15 percent said either “from time to time” or “quite often.”

But that doesn’t deter Patrick Coffee on Mediabistro’s PRNewser blog. The fact that “[p]ublic opinion backs up Coke’s conclusions,” he writes, means only that “The challenge for PR pros is explaining what this finding means and letting clients know that it should not be used to minimize the influence of social media managers.”

In other words, don’t confuse us True Believers with the facts. When it comes to the value of online buzz, our minds are made up.