Coke, Sprint Spread News of Word-of-Mouth Efforts

CHICAGO — Sprint/Nextel and Coca-Cola Co. are putting their money into word-of-mouth advertising, and they shared strategic details in a panel yesterday at the ad:tech conference in Chicago.

One of the greatest challenges in this emerging tactic is tracking exact return on investment.

“I don’t track ROI,” said Mel Clements, a brand manager of Coca-Cola. “We track the old-fashioned way and look at how many people have seen something and passed it to their friends.”

Recent Coca-Cola campaigns focused on engagement and innovation, Mr. Clements said. For example, the Sprite Refreshing Wall was a Web site that let users employ brand and non-brand images to graffiti of personal messages and statements to share with others. It included music and animation.

“If you give people a great experience and have a great campaign, they will talk about it,” he said. “Word of mouth is not a ‘send to friend’ button at the bottom of the page. It’s about being great and doing something great.”

Sprint/Nextel’s recent push, the Sprint Ambassador program, aimed for transparency by offering about 400 bloggers a free phone and six months service. The result was 389,000 hits on Google, said David Dickey, Sprint online and interactive advertising manager.

“We have more than dipped our toes in the space now,” he said.

The risk for Sprint was the lack of control of the word-of-mouth campaign. Mr. Dickey said that the effort generated both positive and negative feedback on the brand. He suggested marketers prepare themselves and upper management for some negative feedback and define specific success metrics before beginning a word-of-mouth campaign.

The tactic requires that marketers keep a close watch on what is said about their brand and specific campaign initiative.

“You need the ability to read blogs and react in a minute,” Mr. Clements said. “It can be exciting.”

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