’s Viral Explosion is a viral marketer’s dream.

Conceived by Coca-Cola as a branded virtual meeting place for teens with a passion for music, word of the site has spread rampantly by word-of-mouth. The numbers speak for themselves: well over a million page views a day, an average growth of over 200,000 unique visitors per month, and average visits lasting longer than 25 minutes.

But how did the site grow to its current strength, and what must it do now to ensure continuing success with a notoriously fickle teen Web audience?

When it decided to build the site, Coke invited six interactive agencies to participate in a review that would also determine the beverage giant’s interactive agency of record. The victor was interactive shop StudioCom, a small Atlanta-based agency that was founded by Colombian native Juan Pablo Gnecco.

The Power of Music

The site StudioCom proposed had two main components. The first, called the Launching Pad, is the result of a Coke partnership with AOL Music and features eight emerging recording artists each month. users can read these musicians’ bios, listen to their music and watch videos.

“We decided not to go for the biggest stars and their releases, but rather new and emerging music,” said Doug Rollins, interactive brand manager for Coke. “We heard from users that they lacked a reliable place to find out what the next big band is going to be; they could get the current big thing, but not the cutting edge. AOL Music was able to provide eight to 12 artists in the emerging category.”

The second important piece of the site — and the one that ties the community together — is Coke Studios. Coke Studios is a virtual meeting place where registered site users create their own music mixes and customized avatars, called V-egos. Each visitor’s V-ego allows the person to extend his or her personality into the Web sphere. For example, a visitor can literally stroll through a virtual club where other V-egos are “standing,” chat with those users, and play the tunes he or she has mixed for them.

A Virtual Economy

When a user plays a mix at a virtual club, other denizens vote on the mix, and the DJ wins “decibels” based on his or her number of “thumbs-up.” Decibels are the currency of Coke Studios, and can be exchanged for furniture items. These in turn can be used to enhance users’ private rooms, virtual spaces where groups of avatars listen to music and engage in impromptu games. It all adds to the sense of possibility and play users perceive within the site, which is what keeps ’em coming back.

“We didn’t know how interesting it was going to get once they were able to invent their own games,” said StudioCom’s Gnecco. An example, said Gnecco, is the “furniture race,” in which avatars compete in a game that involves pushing furniture across a room. “Whoever wins, the room owner gives a chair to that person,” he said. “There were also trivia games, with rugs and plants for prizes.”

Site visitors can pop in and out of virtual clubs around the world at will. A recent visit to the virtual club in New York found one user calling for some V-ego globetrotting: “global tour! miami, tokyo, l.a., c’mon!” she shouted. Her V-ego then disappeared, and several others’ promptly blinked out of the room after her presumably on their way to “Miami.”

“One of the key things about is that people are on the site for a tremendous amount of time,” said Rollins. “People are interacting with the brand and with other consumers. It’s entertainment, a form of gaming. It’s not what comes to mind when you think of gaming, but that’s what it is.”

Gnecco, of StudioCom, feels differently. “It’s not a game,” he said. “It’s a place where teens can go and do their own thing. Listen to music, chat, find validation among a group of teens.”

With so many functions built into the site, StudioCom and Coke leaned on various partners to complete the job. One was OddCast, which provided the music mixer technology. A Helsinki firm, Sulake, provided the tech for the walking, talking avatars.

“The site tech involves many cities,” Gnecco said. “We have internal teams at Coke in L.A.; vendors in New York and Helsinki; a development team in Bogota; and Coke’s servers are in North Carolina.”

When it Comes to Viral, Variety Rules

Interestingly, most referrals to the site don’t happen via CokeMusic’s “invite a friend” button, which many users seem to find too formulaic. Instead, people find out by word of mouth and private emails. What really keeps the site going strong traffic-wise is not a referral button, but rather Coke’s awareness that it must be constantly new to attract and retain users.

“It’s really key to vary the site experience,” Rollins said. “It’s always got to be new. For example, people are constantly reinvigorating their V-egos, so at Christmas, we let people use a Santa hat as part of their wardrobe. For two weeks, they all had Santa hats.”

Other changes, additions and tie-ins to the site are ongoing and more strategically focused on marketing. After the first American Idol, for example, a special Under-the-Cap (UTC) promotion let users collect codes from bottles of Coca-Cola. The codes could then converted into decibels, which in turn could be used to win specific prizes, such as the original red couches from the reality show.

When Coke launched its “Coca-Cola… Real” ad push in January 2003, it first debuted the campaign’s signature tune on Registered site users could download “Real Compared To What,” an update of an old jazz standard performed by R&B/hip-hop recording artists Mya and Common; and an extended version of the tune appeared on a Mya album shortly after the campaign.

Most recently, CokeMusic launched a game experience called “Uncover the Music,” in which users can go head to head in a memory game via their V-egos. The game highlights Coke’s ongoing effort to keep the site fresh.

Now, approaching its one-year anniversary, CokeMusic is preparing another UTC promo — launching on June 7 — that it expects to bring a new inundation of users and traffic. Rollins, for his part, is looking way ahead.

“We’re engaged in 2004 planning now,” he said. “One of my challenges will be to develop a three- and five-year plan. It has clearly become an important marketing platform for us.”

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