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2011 Social Media 50 Introduction

Joe Sorge sounded about three characters away from a tweet that could melt stone. “Wait a minute,” the co-owner of AJ Bombers retorted after learning his Milwaukee burger joint finished mid-pack in Restaurant Business’ ranking of restaurant operators—chains, independents and chefs—by social media activity. “Why aren’t we at the top? We have to be one of the top five independents from our Twitter following alone. I don’t think that can be right.”

In fact, Bombers is No. 2 on the Social Media 50’s independent breakout, a result of Sorge’s decision three years ago to stay afloat through flying fingers. He financed the sale of his restaurants to several locals right before the economy stroked out in ’08. Within 18 weeks he owned Bombers again. Twitter, he decided, would be the no-cost way to grab whatever customers still had some coin in their pockets.

At the end of year one, he was breaking even. During year two, sales doubled. Then they doubled again. Bombers was so successful on Twitter that it drew coverage in The Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Travel Channel and blogs. “We became a social media clubhouse,” says Sorge.

Bombers has kept at it since then, averaging 37.2 tweets a day (we pegged it at 33 on the day we checked) from the staff, all of whom are encouraged to post. Now, says Sorge, the 67-seat restaurant is topping $1.3 million in sales from checks that average $10. He’s drawn money from private investors to open additional units, which he plans to develop by asking for site recommendations via social media.

“I’m able to maintain a relationship with customers so they’ll be there another day,” Sorge says.

In many respects, Bombers could be the poster concept of social media’s great leveling effect. The million-a-year lone restaurant is fostering more activity on Twitter and Facebook than chains several hundred times its size in units and dollar volume—high-recognition brands like In-N-Out, Boston Market and El Pollo Loco.

Plenty of other examples surfaced during the research, which was conducted from late January to mid-February. Our staff monitored the two leading social-media channels for restaurants right now, Twitter and Facebook, counting followers and fans, how often consumers discussed the brand and the efforts of operators to foster that give-and-take.

The data was tallied and weighted to reflect its relative value. For instance, a mention of the brand on Twitter—an @mention, in Twitter-ese—counted 10 times as much as a tweet by the operator itself. Facebook wall posts by the public similarly counted as 10 points.

The result was a Social Media Index for each operation identified by our staff or sites like WeFollow.com as a likely social networking frontrunner. Presented here is the Social Media 50, the 50 operators with the highest scores. A glimpse at the Twitter and Facebook activities of all 50 are in the profiles that follow.

The ranking of all 115 rated players (AJ Bombers is No. 77), accessed by clicking the image of the chart, we regard as a dynamic list. A more detailed explanation of the methodology is on the page, along with a calculator to discover your own ranking.

Among the surprises we’ve encountered so far:

  • Casual dining lags considerably behind the quickservice sector in its embrace of social media. Fast-casual chains, the brash young upstarts of the QSR market, similarly lag behind older, more conventional quick-serve brands.
  • Some chains are still sitting out the social media boom, though usually just on one platform or the other at this point. IHOP and Texas Roadhouse, for instance, have taken a pass on Twitter despite their considerable followings on Facebook. Danny Meyer’s popular Shake Shack chain, on the other hand, didn’t bother with any Facebook page that we could find.
  • Starbucks is a dot in the far distance to the rest of the restaurant pack. Its lead in coffee sales looks tight compared with the café chains’ dominance over the brands chasing it in social media.

General Sentiment, a company that ascribes ad-equivalent dollars to social media activities, pegs the exposure value of Starbucks’ social media efforts at $23.1 million for October through January.

Starbucks not only towers over the Social Media 50 but epitomizes a dismaying trend for the Davids on our list: They’re going to need bigger stones if they intend to keep humbling the Goliaths.

“There are definitely exceptions, but we typically see a large correlation between the size of the companies and the values of their social media,” says General Sentiment’s Aubrey Almond. 

“There was a level playing field when it started out. No one knew what they were doing,” notes Jessica Smith, a marketing consultant and self-avowed social-media addict with a particular fondness for following restaurant chains.

But as more consumers embraced social media “the chains started taking it more seriously, and they stepped it up,” Smith continues. “They hired professionals. They learned what works. They have advertising campaigns, and they coordinated them with their social media efforts.”

There also seems to be a market-penetration dynamic coming into play, much as there is with traditional marketing. The Auntie Anne’s pretzel chain is most successful with social media in Atlanta, where it has 67 stores, says Lauren Barash, a spokesperson for franchisor Focus Brands. It’s a different story in New York, where there are only two outlets, she says.

Facebook vs. Twitter

One of the questions for restaurants plotting a social media strategy has been where to focus your screen time. Do you emphasize Facebook over Twitter or Twitter over Facebook? The obvious answer of the Social Media 50: Yes.

Many have shown a sharp proclivity for one platform versus the other, but they seem divided over which one that should be. Olive Garden has more than 1 million Facebook users who “like” it. But it only had 629 Twitter followers.

The Kogi BBQ truck had more than 80,262 “tweeps” who get its daily Twitter posts, but only about 18,000 Facebook fans.

Rick Bayless, an inveterate Twitter user, doesn’t even open his Facebook page to the public.

“If you look at Twitter, just the sheer volume of the discussion, it’s absurd,” says General Sentiment’s Almond. But “for engagement, Facebook is absolutely essential.”

Promotion vs. brand building

One of the factors weighing on the Twitter vs. Facebook question is the chain’s objective with social networking. Is it shooting for a quick, sharp traffic upturn, as it would with conventional promotions, or more to stamp consumers’ minds with a distinct impression of the brand?

“From what we’ve seen in collecting our data, one approach wasn’t more affective than the other,” says Tiffany Mumby of General Sentiment. “But one promotion can be far more effective than others.” She cites the social-media-based scavenger hunt recently conducted by Buffalo Wild Wings as an example of a program that’s been successful in raising attention and chatter.

Nothing snags clicks and posts like a giveaway, says Focus’ Barash. “One of the key search terms on Twitter is ‘free,’” she explains. “So when we did our Free Queso Day last year at Moe’s [Southwest Grill, Focus’ burrito chain], we had a ton of activity.”

For A.J. Bombers, there’s no question about how social media can be used to best effect. “I don’t use it for sales—I don’t want it to be a one-way conversation,” says Sorge. “It’s all about engagement.”

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