Where Coke's Journey should lead

As Coca-Cola’s new corporate website celebrates its first birthday there are lessons worth learning from its ambition to teach the world to tell stories, David Bowen says.

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You can’t go wrong these days if you talk about storytelling. It is a deeply attractive idea for web managers – take the boring old filing cabinet your site used to be, and turn it into a digital bodice ripper. A site people can’t keep away from, because it is a darned good read. Look at Coca-Cola Journey, now a year old. Its founder and boss, Ashley Brown, celebrated this last week. ‘A year ago Coca-Cola made a big bet that storytelling is the cornerstone of the 21st century communications,’ he wrote. It’s a compelling thought, but is he right?

Coca-Cola has done a remarkable thing, bringing a freshness to the group site that few match. Journey is a slick operation, with hefty editorial budgets and a proper newsroom approach to publication. Mr Brown intends to turn it into a major media operation. And why not?

But the real question for the rest of us is ‘Should we do the same?’

Well, you won’t want to do exactly the same: how many lightweight consumer magazines do we need, whether published by corporations, brands, or even publishers?

But I suspect there is an almost infinite appetite for high quality publishing that fills its own niche. To me the starting point should not be ‘do story telling’, but ‘think of your website as your biggest publication’. We need to expand websites to include YouTube and perhaps Facebook, of course, and also turn publication into multimedia magazine – but the principle stands.

A story with a narrative is the most engaging format – every writer knows that. Grab the reader at the beginning, carry them on until the end. But where to get your stories?

Ashley Brown’s anniversary piece is really helpful here. He and his team monitor Journey stories’ popularity like a hawk, and has discovered that group-focused content does better than unbranded material. ‘Virtually all of our coverage of Coca-Cola’s business is a winner’.

This is terrific news because every company has its own unique set of stories – stories about itself and its people. I expect you already publish some of these in your staff magazines or on your intranet. Why not put them on your websites, YouTube channel, Facebook page? Because that is not the way you do it? Well it should be: polish them up, get rid of the jargon and put them out there. If that means blowing away divisional silos, hurrah.

Videos are naturals for stories – they are linear, unlike websites. But you need to learn what works and what doesn't. Here the grand-daddy is Siemens, which has been commissioning and running short videos on its website and other channels for almost three years. Look at its YouTube channel to see which get the most views, and pick up what you can from the company. That for example videos shorter than three and half minutes and longer than five work better than those in between. You wouldn’t have guessed that, would you?

I part company with Ashley Brown in two areas. First, it’s that word ‘storytelling’. Stories can be great at getting engagement – but they are not the only way by a long shot.

Look at magazines (or indeed the Coca-Cola site). Many of the pieces that pull the readers in are not narratives. They are reviews, recipes, opinion pieces, pictures, gossip, even advertisements. Websites, with their electric cleverness, add another bank of elements. Anything interactive for start – the manager of the Bank of Canada website told me that his inflation calculator was by far the most visited feature. Interactivity works, but it nothing to do with stories. So to repeat, think about really strong content, not just stories.

Second, Mr Brown says in his recent piece that ‘today’s anniversary and home page relaunch marks a final break with the corporate website. You read it here first: for consumers, the corporate website is dead and “press release PR” is on its way out.’

I don’t quite understand this, because his site still has a full set of corporate information. But accepting what he says, why is he so keen to kill the corporate website?

First, there is no reason why you can’t have both roles in the same site. That’s the lovely thing about websites: they are brilliant at handling complexity.

Second, I bet the biggest group of visitors to the site is still jobseekers.  Coca-Cola may not see its website as a core recruitment channel, but all the other companies I know do.

Third, the ‘filing cabinet’ element is awfully useful. The website is where professionals go to get facts about the company – what its EPS growth in Q3 was, how to spell the CEO’s name, how much it invested in its Romanian bottling line. This is not meant for the consumer, but for analysts, journalists, researchers and the like. They need accurate information. If a company does not give it to them, they will go to other, perhaps less precise sources.

As for killing ’press release PR’, why? Press releases are used by journalists to check facts (they come only behind audited information in the care with which they are produced) and also as starting points for journalists. They are not the stories themselves. You do not have to be a dangerous leftist to want to read stories about a company written by independent journalists, rather than the company itself. As my colleague Scott Payton said in his recent column ‘Killing the press release won’t help you win your overall communications battle’.

I can’t help wondering if Coca-Cola Journeys is about to split, with a real ‘corporate website’ appearing alongside it. If I were an analyst or journalist I might appreciate that, though it would of course mean that Journeys became just another online magazine. Still, by stirring up the world of corporate sites as it has, the site has already done a great deal of good. Thanks, Coke.

First published 19 November, 2013
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