In 1912, the South Pole was discovered, the Titanic sank, and the Oreo cookie was invented. In 2012, Oreo celebrated its 100th birthday -- on Facebook. For 100 straight days, the brand ran a new online ad each day celebrating a different twist on the iconic cookie. Oreo's social media presence exploded, going from a handful of "likes" on Facebook to more than 34 million fans today. Long after the campaign retired, engagement surrounding the brand continues to significantly exceed its online activity prior to the campaign.
Oreo sells about 7.5 billion cookies per year -- about 20.5 million a day. So why does Oreo only have 34 million fans on Facebook?
By some measure, 34 million fans is a lot. There's hardly a TV show in the country that can boast a number that high. But that 34 million is a global audience. Oreo is sold in 100 countries, and reviewing daily comments from fans is to experience a towering Babel of languages.
The top 25 most popular fan pages on Facebook have just one consumer product brand: Coca-Cola. Try finding additional consumer brands on there. A combination of their low profile and Facebook's anti-brand search make it nearly impossible. Out of the top 100 Twitter accounts with the most followers, there's not a single consumer product brand. Interestingly, the bulk of those accounts belong to musicians. That creates its own set of challenges for the music industry where, now, this technology has created a direct gateway for these artists to communicate with and market themselves and their brand to that audience.
Social media is inherently unfriendly to brands. The technology is designed to empower and engage individuals, and to better connect people to each other. A person's online space -- be it social media or an email inbox -- is an intimate one, although, paradoxically, it's not private. One is naturally resistant to having big brands interrupt conversations in person, so we don't really want to engage with them online either.
TV will turn out to be a 60-year anomaly in human history, where advertising had mass-market reach and an iron grip on viewers' attention. Social media erodes much of the power that brands built during TV's golden age, and raises substantial questions about the qualitative ways online media is different from TV.
TV is an "open" entertainment: I sit in front of the set and my brain empties out. When we go online, we act with intention -- pursuing people and ideas we're interested in. That intentionality makes social media -- and digital media generally -- a very challenging medium for brands.
Social media is personal, intimate and intentional. That explains why many of the most successful brands on social media have gained traction through cause marketing. Probably the best-known is the Pepsi Refresh campaign: Using $20 million budgeted for marketing, Pepsi gave the money away through grants ranging from $5,000 to $250,000 for ideas submitted online. The campaign generated an enormous amount of social media activity for Pepsi: 80 million votes on Facebook and more than 60,000 Twitter followers.
At the risk of understating the case, the individual-centric design of technology renders traditional marketing and advertising less effective. Not only do consumers want ever more control over their media and communication, they also want fewer ads. Netflix's on-demand streaming service now accounts for more than one-third of Internet traffic during prime-time TV-viewing hours, and that's a subscription media service without ads. That should chill the bones of any advertising or marketing executive whose plan is built on ads.
The question of consumer persuasion online remains unanswered. The more time and money that are poured into traditional strategies and tactics, the harder it will be for consumer brands to forge new approaches. The pace and direction of our media and entertainment habits is taking us rapidly away from the old way of doing business-and the new way has yet to be built.
Nicco Mele is a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "The End of Big." He is also co-founder of EchoDitto, an Internet strategy and consulting firm.