When you're running a Facebook site with 36 million fans, you accumulate your social media lessons on the grandest stage.
Coca-Cola Co. built what was once a fan page operated by two guys in Los Angeles into a worldwide platform for the stout-colored soft drink.
Throw in its other social media platforms, and Coke has gained prowess as a super-powered, multinational marketer. Coke has a YouTube channel that boasts nearly 8 million views, and its Twitter feed has 436,000 followers. It's also active on Flickr.
Here are a few tips gleaned from an interview with Michael Donnelly, group director of worldwide interactive marketing for Coca-Cola:
1. Don't just play defense. Play offense.
When you're monitoring for angry trolls and disgruntled customers, also keep an eye out for satisfied buyers and great stories to amplify.
"Most people think of listening as more defensive: looking for bad things," Donnelly says. "And of course we always have to be aware of those things as well. … But I like to think of it, being a marketer more than a PR person, as more of the incredible offensive opportunities knowing what people are saying at any given moment."
2. Be ready to leap in.
Coca-Cola is a major sponsor of the Olympics, and it has tied its message to individual athletes. Despite the marketing initiatives drawn up in advance, interesting possibilities can emerge in unexpected places.
"If there's lots of chatter that no one could predict because it's someone's birthday or they got a gold medal or something unique happened in their life, we can support that and add to that conversation," he says, "but only if we're listening to it."
3. Remember that less is more.
Twitter famously limits us to 140 characters, but Coke strives to keep its messages concise on Facebook as well.
"The less words, the better," Donnelly says. "Once you put a post out there that has three or more lines, there's less engagement because it takes longer to read it."
4. Make everything 'liquid and linked.'
At Coke, people talk a lot about creating content that is "liquid and linked."
"'Liquid' simply means content that's contagious," Donnelly says. "It can't be controlled. It can go anywhere. And that's the kind of content we're trying to create, especially in social spaces. And 'linked' is simply linked to our business interest, linked to our brand, linked to our consumer interests."
5. Tell—and even create—happy stories.
Coca-Cola has had great success in recent weeks with a video that's part of its "Happiness Project" campaign, Donnelly says.
It found three Filipino guest workers who had spent years abroad, away from their families, and had never been able to afford a ticket to their homeland. One man hadn't seen his son in 11 years, since the boy was 1. Coke flew them home.
"We're paying for some people who haven't been home in years to come home for the Christmas holidays," Donnelly says.
An old man who's going blind sees his son again before his eyesight goes. A son cries on his father's shoulder. A mother embraces her children. A family clan feasts on roast pig. See if you can watch this video without a lump in your throat.
6. Have a process in place to deal with your nightmares.
Asked for his biggest social media nightmares, Donnelly preferred to talk about lessons learned. One of those is having a process in place to deal with the worst—including a nonstop campaign of attack on a brand billboard the size of Jupiter.
"If there's anything that keeps me up tonight, I guess it would be the opportunity for people to say anything they want me to say whether it's real or not," he says. "And the reason I can sleep tonight is because we've got the processes in place and know exactly how to handle these things."
7. Open the social media world to your employees—but have a policy in place.
Coke is preparing to launch a training program for its employees, and its social media policy is online for the world to see. This calls for transparency and protection of consumer privacy, and Coke tells employees, "Be a 'scout' for compliments and criticism."
"Social sites are not blocked within our company," Donnelly says.
8. Apply different strategies to different platforms.
Coke seeks to converse with its fans on Facebook, but YouTube is more about watching, with maybe a thumbs up or down and a quick word afterward.
"The culture's much more about watching and very brief commenting, as opposed to conversation," Donnelly says.
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com, where a version of this story first appeared.