10 social media lessons from the RB/FSTEC Award winners

The editors of Restaurant Business saluted 12 restaurant chains in the social media competition of the inaugural RB/FSTEC Awards. Here are some of the practices and approaches used by the standouts to engage their audiences.

1. Don’t shy away from controversy

A mixed reaction is preferable to no reaction, so don’t shy away from controversy. Chipotle didn’t with its Homo Estas? tweet, chosen by the editors of RB as Best Single Social Media Post. The chain tweeted the line after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to be married.  

2. Try brandjacking

Hitching your brand to a bigger, more broadly known trade name can bolster attention from a bigger following than you currently enjoy. Jimmy John’s did so masterfully with its Father’s Day tweet invoking Papa John’s: “Dad?” The pizza chain probably didn’t mind, since it garnered considerable attention with the response, “Yes, my son?”

3. Invoke a celebrity's name

Invoking a celebrity’s name can provide the same sort of uplift, as Arby’s has shown several times. Most recently, it capitalized on the departure from Comedy Central of Jon Stewart, who repeatedly used the chain and its food as a dartboard for his barbs. Arby’s revenge on the night Stewart signed off: “Jon, feel free to reach out to us at” The quip helped Arby’s earn the designation as Top Social Marketer among large chains.

4. Tap the star power of web celebs

Platforms like Vine and YouTube abound in big-drawing personalities who may not be a regulator on Jimmy Fallon’s show, but have a cult following in the social media sphere. Cimorelli, an a cappella band with a cult following on YouTube, helped Subway snag 1 million views of a spot on that platform for the Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt.

5. Play on the emoji craze

For a considerable stretch, Domino’s communicated solely on Twitter via emojis, working them into “sentences” and (hopefully) complex communications.  The “conversation” wasn’t easy to follow, but it snagged attention—which spilled readily into awareness of the chain’s new option of letting customers order a delivered pizza by tweeting an emoji. Separately, Taco Bell has snagged attention by calling for the creation of a taco emoji.

6. Don’t forget the other platforms

Taco Bell is a dominant brand on Twitter. But it was quick to realize the potential of Snapchat, a medium where Twitter-like messages disappear after a few moments. The new platform is popular with Gen Z, as Taco Bell found with a promotion that helped fans Snapchat sweet nothings to one another on Valentine’s Day.

7. Go for photo simplicity over high art...

Shake Shack had our youngest editor-judges swooning over its food photography, which made the retro-burger brand a hands-down winner in the Most Tantalizing Food Porn category. The shots were simple but well-taken, as if they’d been snapped with a smart phone by guests.

8. …But don’t neglect quality, either

The counterpoint: Chili’s spent $750,000 to upgrade its food photos on social media. Simple shots of a margarita, a Chili’s signature, routinely fetch 20,000 likes on facebook.

9. Eavesdrop, surprise and overwhelm

A high school senior noted in passing on Facebook that wings from Buffalo Wild Wings would be a pretty good way to celebrate his graduation. That was all the invitation BWW needed to turn the casual post into a media opportunity. The chain showed up at the student’s house, armed with wings, sports celebs and all the fixings for a Mardi Gras of a graduation party.  Professionally shot videos showed up on several social media platforms.

10. Offer free stuff

Giveaways and discount coupons may be old even by brick-and-mortar standards, but they still work well online. Carrabba’s sees “likes” double on Facebook when a post includes an offer for a coupon. Just be sure you’re not making the schwag the complete focus, so visitors absorb good vibes about the brand. 

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