Skittles has been anything but skittish toward social media marketing over the last year. The 35-year-old confectionary brand has been building its Facebook presence dramatically, exceeding 4 million "fans" earlier this month. That's good for third place among all U.S. consumer brands, trailing only Starbucks' 6 million and Coca Cola's 5 million.
Just last year, Skittles made headlines for its plunge into social media on Twitter. In March 2009, the brand began using an unfiltered Twitter search as its homepage - abandoning its existing Web site - to appeal to young, social-media-minded consumers. Many in the industry characterized the move as either daring or intriguing, while others lamented that it was copying a similar ploy by ad agency Modernista.
At the time, offensive comments littered the Twitter feed, prompting Skittles to move its homepage over to Facebook. That location didn't last long either, as the brand - owned by McLean, VA-based Mars Inc. - subsequently moved its homepage to other social sites.
The erratic activity actually helped build an ongoing buzz last year that surfaced on Facebook more than anywhere else. The brand increased its presence on the social site from around 600,000 fans, pre-Twitter-experiment, to 3.5 million by 2009's end.
During the fourth quarter, Brooklyn, NY-based agency Big Spaceship was charged with building a new Skittles.com - which went live in December. The re-launched site, centered on the theme, "Experience the Rainbow," includes an unusually long vertical scroll that features a stream of images against colorful backgrounds that reinforce the theme. Visitors are repeatedly encouraged to become a Facebook fan or Twitter follower. Interestingly, Skittles only has around 900 Twitter followers.
But since January, 600,000 Facebook fans have been added, bringing the total to 4.1 million. While the social-minded Web site and micro-site likely deserve credit, promotions most definitely do. Skittles has run Facebook-only offers like giving fans a 2-for-1 voucher for the candy, helping the brand pick up an extra 100,000 fans in the last 10 days alone.
"There's an overall sense of velocity in the digital space that this brand has, as a result of the activities we have collaborated on," said Michael Lebowitz, CEO for Big Spaceship.
By "we," Lebowitz was also referring to agencies Evolution Bureau and Firstborn. The three boutiques took over digital advertising after Skittles' parent Wrigley decided to replace Omnicom agencies Agency.com and Tribal DDB, as well as Publicis Worldwide's Digitas last fall. Firstborn has since created a micro-site, ShareSkittles.com, that promotes YouTube video sharing as well as signing up for the brand at Facebook and Twitter.
Collectively, Lebowitz suggested, the trio has been charged with keeping the ever-increasing number of fans engaged. To that end, the Skittles team authors posts every day, which usually produce several comments from fans each hour.
Sometimes, the posts have a transparent marketing purpose. A new product was introduced on its fan page on March 22, while reading: "The new Skittles have spoken! They call themselves Fizzl'd Fruits. And they do that fizzy, tingly thing to your tongue. Have you seen them?" Around 600 fans responded with comments in the following 24 hours, while 1,300 more tapped the "like" button.
Yet the brand appears to be better served, at times, by fun-oriented engagement posts. Playing off its "Experience the Rainbow," theme, one post reads: "Writing a bluegrass hip hop song. What rhymes with Rainbow?" It produced 1,600 comments and more than 650 "likes" over a few days last week.
As brands get more sophisticated on Facebook, though, daily engagement posts and special offers may not be enough to keep people's attention, suggested Daniel Stein, CEO of Evolution Bureau in San Francisco. He said that's why the brand has been trying to engage fans by taking social media offline with Facebook-exclusive videos called "Mob The Rainbow."
The first video (3-minutes long) ran the day after Valentine's Day, when a production crew snuck up on an unsuspecting meter maid with Valentine's Day cards and, of course, Skittles. The meter maid was selected after the brand asked fans to send in supposedly lonely-hearted candidates for the video. Once the person was chosen, "fans" were asked to mail in actual Valentine's Day cards for the event.
"We had 45,000 people sign up to be part of the event in a couple of days," Stein said. "On Valentine's Day, we went out and found the [selected] woman with a van that was decked out with Skittles stickers all over it. We had a team of merry pranksters who jumped out of the van and delivered the Valentine's Day cards to the meter maid. We edited the video and got it up the next day...We plan to do [the video series] for another six months to a year."
How important is video to a brand's social media strategy? Two brands with a comparable number of fans to Skittles have not relied on video to build their followings. Photos - and not videos - have been consistently uploaded by the Facebook fans of Nutella, a hazelnut spread with 3.7 million fans on its official page. And potato chips brand Pringles, which has nearly 3.1 million fans, has sporadically used videos to engage its audience on the social site. It has posted six videos so far this year - but didn't add one during the last five months of 2009.
You can follow Christopher Heine on Twitter at @ChrisClickZ.
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Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.
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