Coca-Cola sets up mobile social network

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co. is creating a virtual teenager hangout like MySpace and Facebook, only on cell phones, to lure more youngsters to its sodas and flavored drinks, starting in the United States and China.

Eyeing the success of mostly desktop computer-bound teen social sites run by media companies, like News Corp’s MySpace, the world biggest soft drink maker said on Wednesday it was creating a cell-phone network under its Sprite brand where members can set up profiles, post pictures and meet new friends.

Coke, part of a growing group of advertisers putting ad campaigns on cell phones, will make the U.S. site available to Web-ready phones on June 22. It launched in China last week and is eyeing other markets in regions like Latin America.

“The Coca-Cola Company needs to continue to recruit future generations of consumers,” said Mark Greatrex, senior vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola. “Mobile marketing is absolutely where it’s at for us going forward.”

MySpace, the leading teen social site, is available on some cell phones. But its nearly 67 million monthly unique visitors in the United States mostly access the site on computers, as Web use on cell phones has been hampered by small screens.

Coke hopes to overcome such mobile Web barriers by tailoring the format of the service to be used more easily on cell phones and by offering free content.

The company did not give financial details on the cost of the project.

Coke will also use the site to promote Sprite through free music and video clips to visitors who type in a pin number found under bottle lids.

While lemon-lime-flavored Sprite trails Coca-Cola in popularity, the company chose this brand for its mobile venture because of its appeal to teenagers. It said it may expand the service to other brands as well as create related desktop Internet sites.

Yankee Group has forecast the mobile advertising market to more than quadruple to $275 million in 2007 and eventually increase to $2.2 billion in 2010, up from an estimated $60 million in 2006.

Some media experts have said the mobile advertising market could be worth as much as $5 billion in five years.

Coke said it worked with the top U.S. wireless providers on the service and is in touch with other social networks such as Facebook about expanding its experience.

One potential issue is how to keep children safe from predatory adults. MySpace has faced lawsuits and negotiated guidelines with legal authorities over protecting its teen members from convicted sex offenders posing as youngsters online.

“That certainly is a priority,” said Sprite global brand director Denis Sison when asked how the mobile social network, Sprite Yard, would protect its members.

Sison said the site would be monitored to make sure inappropriate photos and video were not posted, while conversations would also be screened.

The site would encourage members not to share their cell phone numbers and would only add a person to another’s friend list on an opt-in basis, Sison said.