The folks at AdAge posted an article recently on what they (and others) have described as the biggest social media campaign of the year: Coca-Cola’s global Expedition 206 project, where three “happiness ambassadors” travelled the world to document people’s search for happiness. Based on many measures, this campaign was a huge success, with over 650 million media impressions and huge global audiences across the campaign platforms – notably in relatively immature Coke markets like China. (It likely didn’t hurt that Coke’s social media properties are already among the most popular in the world.)

It’s interesting to note that some observers – including a few commenting on this article – aren’t sold on the success of the campaign. A few critics questioned whether the program had actually translated into a spike in sales, arguing increased awareness or positive buzz was a soft, meaningless measure of ROI. Others claimed they had never heard of the campaign, suggesting the ratings might be hype.

But beyond the debate about evaluating success – which is a big enough topic for another post altogether – I see a few important lessons for all communication/marketing professionals in this campaign:

  • Social media is about people and local markets – The Coke folks developed the campaign blueprint at HQ and leveraged a core team to coordinate the massive undertaking, but used a decentralized approach where local teams (and the personable ambassadors) had flexibility to implement and customize the outreach. It’s also worth noting the prevalence of informal video in this program – a popular and compelling format that is too often ignored in many corporate programs;
  • Be open to learning and adapting along the way – The Coke team freely admits they were flying blind on many aspects of this program, and leveraged the insights and feedback along the way to adjust the plan;
  • Dont’ wait for things to be perfect – It might surprise some that even a social media leader like Coke launched this campaign knowing their teams would have to stretch to implement the campaign (for example, requiring a higher level of coordination across marcom groups and forcing many local teams to become more familiar with social media). Sometimes a campaign is the impetus for organizations to raise their game and overhaul technology and/or process…and that’s not a bad thing;
  • Face-to-face still matters – Coke used a wide range of virtual activities in this campaign, but complemented the robust online tactics with critical local meetings and testimony by the ambassadors, which in turn generated much of the digital content. The heart of this campaign – as it were – was the personal friendships and outreach of the 3 ambassadors on the ground;
  • Engage partners in relevant communities – The ambassadors reached out to local bloggers, fans and reporters to support their local outreach and extend local word-of-mouth;
  • Be creative – This campaign went well beyond the typical, relatively safe Facebook and Twitter outposts favored by more timid organizations. The result was a campaign that was bold in scope and also much more interesting and lasting in terms of content and coverage.

These lessons were similar to what I experienced at Dell as part of the core team that developed and launched the social media programs several years ago. There were many things we didn’t know when we started, but we never would have learned – or made any progress – if we had waited for the perfect situation. Our focus was on getting the basics right – our strategy, objectives and key principles – but positioned our efforts as a constant beta test…constantly assessing, innovating and improving. Like with Coke, our efforts forced the issue on many fronts (for example the introduction of new technology and upgrades in infrastructure.)

The frenetic, unpredictable pace of evolution in social media doesn’t allow for ponderous, diffident planning more common even a few years ago. Yes, planning and strategic rigor still matter, but they shouldn’t get in the way of great ideas.