Social Media is as Versatile as it is Valuable

A multi-faceted social media presence allows brands to move their interaction with the consumer outside the outlet, strengthening relationships and giving operators more control over their branding. But the flexibility that makes the channel so powerful can also make it difficult to harness. There is a near-overwhelming range of social media platforms, each of which can be used in myriad ways. Euromonitor International took a snapshot of social media activity among the top twenty US restaurant brands to get an idea for how they’re managing their online presence.

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The plot above focuses on Facebook, showing total Facebook fans (or, “likes”) and fan activity for the last week of October. Fan activity was measured using the “talking about this” metric tracked by Facebook, which quantifies interactions with a brand from unique visitors, including “likes”, wall posts and comments, during the past seven days. While total Facebook fans is a valuable indicator of a brand’s potential reach, fan activity is arguably an even more important measure of the efficiency of that reach, as it shows whether those fans are actively engaging with the brand.

Furthermore, Facebook is not the only social media worth leveraging, and the most successful brands have built an integrated online brand presence that incorporates domestic and international Facebook pages, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and any other manner of social media. Pizza Hut, for example, has a US page with 9 million likes in addition to individual pages for Pizza Hut Middle East, UK, Pakistan, Malaysia, India and many others, some of which have as many as a million additional followers specific to individual countries.

While all brands use social media a bit differently, Euromonitor International’s quick study of US Facebook pages highlights some of the standouts who have been particular successful with their online strategies.

Subway is the most talked about

In terms of activity, Subway was by far the most successful during the surveyed week, attracting three times the activity of the next-highest brand. In terms of engagement, Subway also ranks among the highest, with the second largest ratio of activity to total Facebook fans behind Red Lobster. Subway’s strategy includes frequent content updates, including fan photos, new promotions and photos of athletes and celebrities that endorse Subway products. In particular, Subway frequently updates its US site’s cover photo, keeping the site feeling fresh and exciting for consumers who visit frequently.

Subway also collaborates with entertainment properties like feature films and TV shows, especially those, like popular US weight loss reality show Biggest Loser, that align with its healthy living brand message. These tie-ins allow the brand to reinforce its lifestyle component and provide new content for its social media sites in the form of behind-the-scenes photos and interviews with actors and directors. This kind of content appeals to those interested in the entertainment properties that might not otherwise have a reason to interact with Subway on Facebook, drawing more potential customers to the site and creating new relationships.

Starbucks is all about the visual

At over 30 million fans, Starbucks is one of the most popular brands on Facebook across all industries. The specialist coffee shop uses a more lifestyle-focused approach with impressive results. Though the brand focuses on posting photos of various Starbucks products, the images are chosen in such a way so as to highlight the different ways consumers enjoy their beverages rather than to showcase the beverages themselves. This kind of lifestyle positioning helps fans to see Starbucks as an extension of their own identities, strengthening the consumer-brand relationship and fostering two-way communication.

Starbucks also has a dedicated Facebook page strictly for its Frappuccino beverages, taking the lifestyle branding a step further and developing an online identity for a single popular product. The page features photos of fans enjoying Frappuccinos in a variety of settings, including the beach in the summer and among the foliage in the fall. This strategy helps reinforce the flexibility of the specialty beverage and its many varieties, as well as promote it as an option for a wide range of eating and social occasions.

McDonald’s offers original content

Content on McDonald’s Facebook page also emphasizes new menu items, promotions and invitations for fans to participate in various campaigns, such as charitable donations and online contests. Where McDonald’s really excels, however, is in its ability to create original content for fans in the form of YouTube videos that highlight various parts of its business. One such campaign follows various ingredient suppliers as they tour their farms and talk about what it’s like to work with McDonald’s, positioning the brand as responsible in its sourcing and promoting the high quality of its ingredients.

In a particularly successful campaign earlier in 2011, McDonald’s Canada answered a series of fan questions in the form of YouTube videos, focusing on such topics as why McDonald’s products look different in advertisements, and whether controversial rumours about how Chicken McNuggets are made are true. While the campaign attracted lots of questions with negative connotations, it also allowed McDonald’s to steer the conversation and address these potentially negative topics in such a way as to allow them better control of their message. Simply put, the videos served as creative and entertaining ways to influence McDonald’s’ public image and make fans feel like active participants rather than marketing targets. The campaign helped McDonald’s Canada generate more than 13 million video views, a number higher than most brands’ total number of US Facebook fans.

High Risk, High Reward

Social media also has its potential drawbacks, one of the largest of which involves negative feedback. When brands invite fans to share their thoughts in a public forum, they also relinquish complete control of their public brand image, giving the same wide-spread reach to negative fan-generated comments as to company-approved content. In this way, Facebook pages can become lightning rods for controversy, giving fans a place to vent about their dissatisfaction in a very public way.

Casual dining and full-service restaurant brand Red Lobster, for example, boasted the highest fan engagement ratio during the surveyed week, at an impressive 16 fan actions to every 100 fans. However, much of the recent activity on the brand’s page was made up of negative comments responding to a recent decision by the brand to limit health benefits to its workers, as well as to a current giveaway in which the brand partnered with a controversial athlete. Whereas television or radio ads that aren’t well-received can simply be taken off-air or quickly amended to assuage public opinion, the viral nature of the social media sphere can sometimes serve to perpetuate bad publicity in a way that is difficult for brands to control.

That said, bad publicity via social media does not always translate to negative effects in the real world. Whereas Taco Bell’s US business suffered major sales losses after news of a spurious lawsuit regarding the quality of its beef went viral on social networks, a similar public relations crisis recently suffered by chicken fast food brand Chick-fil-A actually resulted in higher sales due to the greater brand awareness generated by the high-profile controversy.

And this, possibly more than any other factor, highlights the power of an effective social media presence. Regardless of the topic of the conversation, social media allows brands to connect with potential consumers outside the outlet on a grand scale and in increasingly nuanced ways. Brands have more reach and more robust opportunities than ever before, and it’s up to operators to leverage those opportunities into real-world sales growth. Ultimately, this can be achieved with the use of exciting, engaging and entertaining content, helping to turn casual fans into loyal customers and, even better, future brand evangelists.