The Blog as an Archival Tool: Coca-Cola Conversations

Philip F. Mooney
June 22, 2009

Introduction

Just over a decade ago, the term “blog” was non-existent, but in 2009, there are well over 112 million blogs commenting on themes as varied as sports, fashion, politics, and entertainment to records management, libraries and archives. In its simplest terms, a blog is a type of website, managed by an individual who posts content on a regular basis on specific subjects. The blog can consist of text, images, media, and data, arranged chronologically and viewed in an HTML browser. Most blogs use a conversational style of writing and invite commentary from readers that is posted on the site. As a form of social media, the blog may be the most inclusive. With the emergence of free blog-hosting services, anyone can begin to blog in a matter of minutes. Blogs now dominate the Internet, and provide unique opportunities for people to voice their opinions and influence decision makers. Blogging has changed the face of politics, journalism, and communications, and has profoundly affected the ways in which information is transmitted and shared.

Among the most popular blogs today are the entertainment blogs TMZ and Perez Hilton; the political blogs Crooks and Liars and The Huffington Post; Engadget, a blog on technology tools; and Boing Boing, a blog that focuses on pop culture.1

Like many companies, The Coca-Cola Company began to consider ways of entering the social media landscape in late 2007. From its origins as a soda fountain drink in 1886, Coca-Cola has become a global company selling more than three thousand beverages in over two hundred countries. Every day, more than 1.6 billion servings of company products are consumed. Over its 123-year history, advertising campaigns like “The Pause That Refreshes,” “Things Go Better with Coke,” and “It’s the Real Thing” created print and television images that are marketing classics.

The Archives of The Coca-Cola Company has focused on collecting the advertising and marketing materials that document the interface between the world’s most popular soft drink and its consumers. With thousands of newspaper and magazine advertisements, radio and television commercials, and an extensive photographic collection that captures domestic and international distribution, the archivist became the logical candidate to mine those resources and create a blog for the Company that would focus on heritage and popular culture.

Description of the Tool

Creating and implementing the blog posed a number of significant technological and procedural issues that needed to be addressed before content went live. From conversations with associates in the Information Services function, it was clear that internal support for a blog did not exist. Consequently, the decision was made to select Typepad, the largest provider of blog-hosting services, to manage the content of the Company blog. Typepad already possessed a large roster of big-name clients, including such media driven companies as ABC, MSNBC, and the BBC, a factor that influenced the decision in its favor. Since much of Coca-Cola’s marketing assets are audiovisual in nature, it was imperative that a business partner would have strengths in those applications.

Typepad’s experiences matched up well against the Company‚Äôs expectations for content diversity. Typepad was easy to use, had good customer support, and allowed easy uploads of photos, text, and video and audio files. It provided the author with the ability to totally control the content of the site. Posts could be drafted and held for publication at a future date, comments could be enabled or disabled, and page layouts could be customized to the specific requirements of the author. Access could either be open or password protected. Posts could be easily indexed by subject, allowing search engines to find the blog more quickly. An additional consideration in the Typepad decision was the flexibility of their system. If, at some point in the future, a decision required that the blog be internally hosted, Typepad’s configuration allowed for that eventuality.

Implementation of the Tool

Another critical component of the planning stage was to establish a clear set of guidelines for content and structure. Posts would need to occur several times a week (three to four stories was the unstated objective), and would concentrate on the themes defined in the blog’s introductory statements. Stories appearing in the blog would have an informal tone, but would be authoritative and would reflect the knowledge and experiences of the archivist-author. Above all, the blog could not become a public relations or marketing mouthpiece that mimics brand or corporate websites.

Probably the issue that generated the most concern and discussion prior to launch revolved around the handling of reader comments. Potentially, activists and corporate critics could co-opt the blog to publicize their views and advance their agendas through the use of the comments feature, regardless of whether the commentary fell within the intellectual boundaries of the blog. To prevent that type of content hijacking, all comments were monitored before any posting occurred, and a statement on “House Rules” was posted on the front page of the blog, outlining this policy. The rules further explain that inappropriate or offensive comments would not be published, nor would commentary that did not relate to topics covered by the blog. Making those policies clear from the outset reduced the opportunity for critics to complain if their views did not appear on the site.

Negative comments were accepted and published as long as they were relevant to the themes under discussion, and most of those that were off topic were referred to the Consumer Information Center or to a subject specialist for a response. Commentary that was on topic was published within a day or two of receipt.

The third issue deserving comment is the critical one of commitment. Writing a blog requires discipline and resources. Administering the blog in its initial year required a minimum of ten hours a week to select, compose, edit and post content; review and respond to commentary; and benchmark against comparable institutional presences in cyberspace. The work can be assigned to a single staff member or be distributed among several team members, but the look, feel, and voice of the blog should remain consistent. Blog publishing also requires a continuity plan to account for vacations, illness or travel. The success of the blog requires a consistent publishing schedule. Blogs with a more sporadic posting history will quickly lose their impact, credibility and readership.

After securing the essential commitments described above, the focus turned to blog boundaries and landscape definitions. It was important to clearly stipulate the areas that would be open for discussion. The blog would examine key events in Company history and provide a contextual framework around them, and the information would be presented in an informative and entertaining manner. Whenever possible, the posts would connect with current events and programs, establishing links that demonstrate the connections between heritage and contemporary business practice.

The voice of the blog would be that of the company archivist. A thirty-year veteran who had done numerous print, radio and television interviews on Company history, the archivist had the credibility to talk about milestone events and the convergence of those events to a wider historical context. The archivist had the sole responsibility of selecting the topics for discussion, crafting the posts in Typepad, determining the timing of the posts, and responding to any comments made by readers. On average, management of the blog required a commitment of ten hours per week.

One of the primary reasons to use archival content as the basis of the initial corporate blog was the existence of a strong base of fans who loved the Coca-Cola brand. Thousands of individuals collect the advertising and marketing materials that were produced to accelerate sales of Coca-Cola. Posters, calendars, serving trays, metal signs, and hundreds of other items are bought and sold daily at antique shows, flea markets, retail shops, and Internet auction sites. Many of these individuals belong to organized clubs that promote the collecting of Coca-Cola memorabilia, and many more used these advertising materials to decorate their homes and businesses. For this constituency, the blog would become the authoritative source on both the history and value of their collectibles.

More broadly, the blog offered the general public an opportunity to experience the economic, social, and cultural impact of a global brand through the perspective of an archivist who had worked for the Company for over three decades and had unique perspectives to offer. From the Company standpoint, the blog was an experiment into the social media network, with a non-controversial subject and an author possessing strong credibility with the targeted audience.

On January 23, 2008, the Coca-Cola Conversations blog made its debut.2 Over the next fifteen months, blog content included discussions on a wide range of topics: product and packaging introductions; the Company’s involvement in the Olympics, World Cup and Super Bowl; the making of television commercials with behind-the-scenes features; recipes that included Company brands in the ingredients; personal stories submitted by readers that described how Coca-Cola had impacted their lives; historical milestones; the value of collectibles; urban legends and rumors; pop culture; and even stories about an archivist’s work in the corporate world. During this initial year of blogging, over two hundred stories appeared; more than eighty thousand visitors came to the site, and more than fifteen hundred of them left comments. By early 2008, the blog averaged five hundred to seven hundred visitors per day, with Sunday claiming the heaviest visitation. By any metrics, Coca-Cola Conversations met and exceeded the expectations of the Company in joining the blogging community.

Assessment of the Tool

After a year of experimentation with the blog, the overall results have been encouraging. A strong base of content has been established, and for the most part, comments posted have been favorable. Social media, marketing and food blogs have praised the effort as being authentic and effective, and NBC Nightly News included Coca-Cola Conversations, along with Marriott, in a story about corporate blogs that aired in July, 2008. A British website consultancy, Bowen Craggs and Company, published a video about the blog and the use of history on their corporate website. The video is no longer available, but the text of that interview still resides on that site.3

Typepad has proved to be a reliable and relatively easy tool to use in developing both posts and commentary. It allows posts to be grouped by topic and date, allowing readers to easily find topics of personal interest. Readership has continued to grow on a month-to-month basis, and the success of the blog has stimulated the development of new initiatives in other parts of the Company. In recent weeks, a fan page on Facebook, owned by the Company but hosted by two Los Angeles friends, had claimed more than three million members, while special music videos and television commercials from around the globe have found their way on to YouTube.

From a purely statistical standpoint, the blog has met its objectives. Using Google Analytics, a tool that many bloggers use to determine how and from where visitors come to their websites, Coca-Cola Conversations experienced a growth increase of 330 percent in readers from April 2008 to April 2009. Currently, there are over four thousand views per week. Approximately 85 percent of the visitors are new to the site, suggesting that more and more readers are finding the blog, a very encouraging trend. One of the more interesting findings is that more than 50 percent of the traffic comes directly from Google, a testament to the power of that search engine.

Lessons Learned

The biggest and most impactful lesson of the first year is that audiences will not necessarily stay within the road that you have constructed and that they will develop detours that you had not anticipated. While the Coke collecting community was a key targeted constituency for blog content, that group ultimately treated posts on auction prices and collectible values as an open invitation to request individual appraisals of memorabilia they held. Further, most commentators did not even take the time to determine whether the topic of their inquiry had been covered in previous blog posts. In other cases, comments veered off the original topic into areas that were related but not specifically tied to the original post. For instance, a blog post about the “Coke Adds Life” advertising campaign stimulated a question about the identity of models in a particular ad, while another post about a television commercial generated questions about the background singers. The spirit of their questions was certainly in the ballpark of the posts, but answering these individual requests for information became very time consuming and frustrating. Early in 2009, the practice of responding to these individual questions was discontinued, and a post marking the first anniversary of the blog spelled out this change of policy. The blog still receives dozens of these inquiries each month (an indication that new readers are finding our site), but the shift in policy has positively impacted the daily management of the comments.

The other big lesson is that the audience for this blog reacts and engages more strongly when there is an interactive component to the content. Beginning in September 2008, a post each Friday invited readers to submit a clever or witty caption to accompany a historical photograph or quirky piece of advertising. Commentaries on those posts vastly exceeded reactions to regular posts, frequently numbering in the twenties or thirties. Some of the participation was undoubtedly influenced by the offer of a small prize, but the opportunity to participate directly in the composition of the blog appears to be a major factor in the level of response.

Future Plans

For most of the first year, content was almost exclusively text based, but in 2009, the emphasis has shifted to providing a greater mix of media to enhance the reader experience. At least once or twice each week, the posts will be video clips drawn from the Archives’ rich audiovisual holdings, advertising elements not normally available to the general public, and original footage shot by the Archives staff of events, interviews and featured artifacts from our museum collection. To highlight this growing area of content, a Video Gallery has been created and featured on the Home Page.

Earlier this year, the blog had also introduced three free widgets that readers could download to their personal applications. The first widget was a clock from the 1950s that had been distributed to retailers. The second widget was a calendar that featured a different advertising image for each day of the year, while the latest widget was a recipes collection featuring interesting dishes, all of which use Company products as key ingredients. The underlying concept for the distribution of the widgets is that recipients will share them with their friends, generating additional traffic to the blog.

One additional initiative allows videos produced for the blog also to be posted to YouTube, providing greater exposure to blog content and recruiting new audiences. This placement has already captured several new viewers who are subscribing to our video posts as they become live.

After a year and a quarter, the blog is still very much a work in progress. As technology continues to evolve,and audiences become more selective in where they will spend their time, the blog will need to evolve in order to remain relevant and impactful.

Resources

Blogs

For other corporate blogs, the New PR/Wiki site has a very detailed listing of corporate sites that is worth a visit. Wells Fargo and Delta Air Lines host blogs with strong archival content:

The NewPR/Wiki. “Corporate Blog List.” The NewPR/Wiki. http://www.thenewpr.com/wiki/pmwiki.php?pagename=Resources.CorporateBlogsList (accessed June 14, 2009).

Wells Fargo. “Guided By History.” Wells Fargo. http://blog.wellsfargo.com/GuidedByHistory/ (accessed June 14, 2009).

Delta Air Lines. “Delta Airlines Blog.” Delta Air Lines. http://blog.delta.com/ (accessed June 14, 2009).

For blogs about archival work or sites maintained by archivists, the following resources will be useful:

“Posterity Project.com: Documenting the links to our past.” Gordon Belt, editor. http://posterityproject.blogspot.com/ (accessed June 14, 2009).

“Archivalblogs.” Tangient LLC. http://archivalblogs.wikispaces.com (accessed June 14, 2009).

“ArchivesNext: Well, what will come next?” Kate Theimer, editor. http://www.archivesnext.com/ (accessed June 14, 2009).

Books

Blood, Rebecca. The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub., 2002.

Risdahl, Aliza Sherman. The Everything Blogging Book: Publish Your Ideas, Get Feedback, and Create Your Own Worldwide Network. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2006.

Walsh, Bob. Clear Blogging: How People Blogging are Changing the World and How You Can Join Them. Berkeley, CA: Apress, 2007.

Notes

1. These blogs can be viewed at TMZ, “TMZ,” TMZ Productions, Inc., http://www.tmz.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009);Perez Hilton, “PerezHilton.com: Celebrity Juice, Not from Concentrate,” http://perezhilton.com/ (accessed June 21, 2009); John Amato, “Crooks and Liars,” Crooks and Liars, http://crooksandliars.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009);Huffington Post, “The Huffington Post,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009); Engadget, “Engadget,” Weblogs, Inc., http://www.engadget.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009);and boingboing, “boingboing: A Directory of Wonderful Things,” Happy Mutants, LLC, http://boingboing.net/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

2. Coca-Cola Company, “Coca-Cola Conversations,” Coca-Cola Company, http://www.coca-colaconversations.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

3. The NBC newscast can be found online at NBC Nightly News, “Corporate 2.0: Companies Tap Bloggers-in-Chief,” MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/25786242#25786242 (accessed June 22, 2009). The Bowen Craggs interview can be seen at Bowen Craggs & Co., “Interview,” Bowen Craggs & Co., http://www.bowencraggs.com/pages/99 (accessed April 24, 2009).

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