28 social media ideas to steal

(And a few to avoid)

If social media were a science, every company would meld all the right elements to have McDonald’s 2.2 million Twitter followers or the social evangelism of In-N-Out’s 3 million Facebook fans. There is no perfect formula—at least not one we can fully control. But the social-media brands on these pages come as close as possible. Through trial and error, deep understanding of their audience and, in some cases, a bit of luck, they’ve created magic in the ever-evolving world of social media (some more than once). And their success provides lessons for everyone.

Twitter has established itself in marketers’ minds as the go-to channel for real-time engagement.  With well over 200 million active users and counting, it’s where “viral” happens, making it a leading barometer for the zeitgeist. And recent tweaks to the platform, such as in-depth metrics and more engaging content in the form of gifs, aim to keep brands talking.

Best in class: Denny’s

Last year, Denny’s passed the reins of its Twitter handle to its ad agency, a move some may slam. But the result is a more than 130 percent increase in followers (now 105,000) and a boost to its timing and wit. Here’s a sampling:

1. Don’t do the expected.

Denny’s followers and the media rushed to praise the family-dining  chain when it looked as if it might take the high road and forgo the usual April Fools’ tomfoolery so many brands try (and flop). Its tweet, “Prank idea: don’t.” got 1,700 retweets and 1,500 favorites, plus kudos from industry watchers, including Fast Company, which wrote, “Attention brands, you should all act more like Denny’s on April Fools’ Day.” But it was short lived: Denny’s followed with a barrage of tweets with actual prank suggestions that underwhelmed, with most garnering less than 250 retweets.

2. Perfect the one-liner.

By now, humor is a given, but Denny’s has figured out how to combine it skillfully with of-the-moment observation for a share-worthy tweet that looks simpler than it is. In an example Mashable called a “grand slam,” Denny’s tweeted on news that Apple had purchased Beats Music, “Breaking: Denny’s Buys Beets for $3 Billion, Makes Huge Salad” and snagged more than 2,600 retweets. 

3. Prep for any outcome.

Some of the most successful tweets seem spontaneous, but, as Oreo’s post during the Super Bowl blackout two years ago demonstrates, they’re actually well planned. Denny’s had its own “Oreo moment” in January following the BCS Championship when it tweeted to distraught fans of the losing team: “If it’s any consolation Auburn fans, there are 47 chances to win on the way home,” along with a map plotting Denny’s locations between the Rose Bowl and Alabama. Followers retweeted it more than 6,000 times with comments ranging from “Ouch” to “Perfect.”

4. Turn 15 minutes of fame into 10,000.

When Ellen Degeneres and the Academy Awards came calling, Big Mama’s and Papa’s Pizzeria was ready. Not just with the hot pizzas that it had been called to deliver to the celebrity audience live during the Oscars, but also with a flood of tweets and retweets in the seconds and days that followed. That quick thinking helped stretch the pizzeria’s 15 minutes of fame for at least a week and granted 360-degree coverage of the moment, including BMPP’s lawyer doing cartwheels while watching it all unfold.

5. Never take the night off.

Who would have guessed that a sandwich QSR’s winning moment would be the Grammys? With an eye to the red carpet on music’s big night and a perfectly timed nine-word tweet, Arby’s won the Internet. Sure, pop artist Pharrell’s choice of headwear had a lot to do with it. But, for Arby’s, that spot-on message, “Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs,” came from being in the right place at the right time and having the awareness to act in the moment. Twitter users rewarded the brand with a viral 80,500 retweets. Arby’s later bought Pharrell’s hat for $44,100.

6. Trade tweets for real-world loot.

Starbucks made news in October when it partnered with Twitter to launch its Tweet-a-coffee program, a first of its kind. The offer allows users to tweet a $5 e-gift to a friend and resulted in a reported $180,000 in purchases in its first couple of months.

Fail: Keep it clean.

Dallas chef John Tesar fired off a profanity-laced tweet after a newspaper critic gave his restaurant Knife three stars. When followers called him on his behavior, he claimed he clarified what he meant on Facebook, little recourse for a feud playing out on the other social network.

Facebook is the undisputed king of social media for restaurants and beyond. With 829 million daily active users, it’s got the widest reach of any platform. As such, many operators with social-media strategies consider Facebook to be square one, and others, especially independents, use it as the sole form of social outreach. While many platforms have come and gone, 10-year-old Facebook has remained the common measure for judging overall social-media success. 

Best in class: Wendy’s

The Dublin, Ohio-based burger chain has more than 5 million likes on Facebook, and its wall reads like an open and constant dialogue between the chain and its followers. Here’s some of what fuels the conversation:

7. Take humor over the top.

Last year’s attempt to make its Bacon Portabella Melt LTO more approachable by mispronouncing “brioche” in a tongue-in-cheek promo video brought in 50,000 new Facebook fans. That success continued with the viral Pretzel Love Song video series, pegged to the release of its pretzel-bun sandwiches. One of Wendy’s most popular campaigns to date, it reached 85 million people in the U.S. and racked in 1.7 billion total impressions, the majority through Facebook. Spinning user-generated content, the music videos  and soap-opera ballads pulled lyrics and dialogue from Facebook posts and tweets praising the new menu items. 

Wendy’s tapped celebrities such as boybander Nick Lachey to sing odes about its new burgers

8. Build expectations.

The Pretzel Love Song campaign showed that a series can help build a following for a menu item and the brand overall. To promote another new sandwich, Wendy’s encouraged fans to write subtitles for its latest “short-film” series, Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta: The Movie. The soundless videos were later posted with crowdsourced dialogue, bringing guests back to the page to see the end result. Wendy’s also has been running its Hollywire series since April, comparing pop-culture figures to menu items, with guests coming back to like, comment and share each time a new one is posted.

9. Digs are OK, as long as they’re funny.

While brands experiment to find out just how strong a marketing voice consumers will tolerate in social media, Wendy’s is firmly on the side of serving its marketing messages with a side of humor, so fans don’t feel marketed to. On Facebook, all of its photos and captions relate back to Wendy’s, indirectly promoting specific menu items or overall brand messages, such as value. A simple cheeseburger photo paired with the caption (and knock at a competitor), “Our cheeseburgers aren’t clowning around,” posted Aug. 16 got more than 40,000 likes.

10. Use Facebook for customer service.

Olive Garden encourages its 6.2 million followers to chat with guest relations through Facebook as a quick and direct way to interact with the brand. The team responds to 95 percent of the comments and questions posted on its wall, good or bad. The chain thanks guests for posting, replies to comments and also asks unhappy fans to send direct messages to rectify dissatisfaction. 

11. Jack The competitors’ news.

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. parent CKE Restaurants used McDonald’s nixing of its Angus burgers last June to steal disappointed fans through Facebook. In its “Reclaim your Angus” campaign, CKE CEO Andy Puzder specifically targeted and responded to upset McDonald’s customers, directing them to CKE’s Angus burgers via video messages posted to Facebook as sponsored stories.  

CKE gained 7k Facebook fans in three days from the campaign; coupon redemption also rose.

12. With photos, simple is as simple does.

Panera’s decluttered Facebook page differs from the many cookie-cutter pages out there due to its simplicity. Food photos aim to entice cravings, but they also promote the brand’s image of freshness through bright colors and calling out specific ingredients. But it’s not just food shots; Panera posts professional but not off-putting pictures of guests eating in stores, giving fans something to connect with. 

Fail: Don’t pick a fight with followers.

Verbal assaults from operators never play well on Facebook, as seen with the meltdowns from Amy’s Baking Company in Phoenix and Kansas City, Mo.-based Applebee’s last year. But smaller missteps can just as easily damage a brand, even if it’s an employee—not the restaurant—spreading ill will. Another social-media battle in Phoenix in April ended with the GM of burger restaurant The Attic posting a picture of a guest, calling her a name and saying she was “86ed.” Despite the message coming from a manager, the backlash fell to the brand.

Over 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month, and restaurants are finding new ways to get a piece of the action. Many simply replay their TV commercials, but others create original content to educate or entertain viewers. Chipotle’s animated scarecrow video was one of the most impactful—over 13 million people viewed the clip. Smaller players also are using YouTube to share their restaurants’ ethos, but they’re mixing it up with chef demos, pop culture and more.

Best in class: Chick-fil-A

Fans dressed in funny cow costumes get a lot of play on Chick-fil-A’s YouTube channel, but the QSR also shows its more serious side. The mix of how-to videos, inside stories, community interaction and customer testimonials provides something for everyone. 

13. Go behind the scenes with R&D.

The three “tastemakers” responsible for the launch of Chick-fil-A’s new chargrilled chicken sandwich take viewers inside the R&D process. The chef who developed the recipe and the inventor and engineer who masterminded the grilling equipment describe the effort that went into creating “a meal worth sharing.” Authenticity sells—about 22,000 fans have watched this and related clips about the R&D behind the new sandwich.

14. Capitalizeon fan experiences.

Chick-fil-A’s longtime campaign to Eat Mor Chikin, featuring the chain’s iconic cows, peaks on annual Cow Appreciation Day. That’s when loyalists around the country dress up in cow costumes and shoot videos—which Chick-fil-A encourages them to share. When the call went up on YouTube for the 2014 celebration, which took place on July 11, it garnered 46,252 views. Along with the chain’s professional cow videos, the homemade uploads keep the mascots near and dear to customers. 

15. Pull on their heartstrings.

Personal testimonials—especially emotional ones about family relationships, sickness or military service—go a long way toward building good will for a brand. Chick-fil-A peppers its channel with stories from both customers and employees relating how the restaurant company has been a refuge and a rock in their lives. “A Second Home,” about a military couple’s marriage, has gotten 4,140 views.

16. Align with the arts.

To win points with millennials, Subway shows off its hip side by sponsoring musicians at the annual SXSW festival in Austin and college filmmakers at NYU and USC. Videos of the Subway Sessions feature up-and-coming singers and bands, while the Fresh Artists’ spots run original films submitted for competition. One of the 2013 films, Bite Night, generated close to 10,000 views and a few others racked up several thousand. Viewers coming to replay some of Subway’s TV commercials—also on the channel—get to scout emerging talent.

17. Teach a lesson.

Red Lobster thinks that people shy away from ordering a whole lobster because they don’t know how to eat it. So the chain enlisted its chef, Heidi Lane, to teach Lobster Crackin’ 101—a lesson that 19,750 have tuned into so far. She quickly demos the step-by-step process of disjointing the lobster and removing all the meat from the shell, down to the skinny legs—which she rolls with a bottle to squeeze out the last bits. Lane ends the crash course with a subtle plug: she invites viewers in to test their new skills. For fearless lobster eating, twist, pull, crack and repeat, starting with the claws  

18. Show some character.

In a cartoon series called “B-Dubs Sauce Lab,” Buffalo Wild Wings introduces its newest flavors. Fans get a “first taste” of limited edition sauces such as Salted Caramel, Wicked Wasabi, Sriracha Sizzle and Big Easy Bourbon through the taste buds of animated characters. Each 30-second vignette tells a different story with different personalities. In one month, B-Dubs “The Devouring,” a hair-raising tale of terror based on a taste of Ghost Pepper sauce, was watched more than 16,000 times. 

Fail: Listen to employee complaints.

A cook at a Florida Golden Corral   noticed that food stored next to a dumpster was brought back into the kitchen. When his discovery was ignored by management, he posted a video. It went viral and has since been viewed over 2 million times. 

In early 2014, Instagram broke 200 million users, and the platform continues to move closer to its older sibling Twitter in terms of usage and engagement, reports eMarketer. Although restaurants currently have stronger engagement on Twitter, according to Simply Measured, a social-measurement company in Seattle, they predict that as Instagram continues to grow, restaurants will focus more of their energy there. 

Best in class: Sweetgreen

Sweetgreen has 27 stores, yet its Instagram followers number over 34,000—about 10,000 more than Panera Bread with  1,700 units. The chain shows off its fresh menu with plenty of photos, but the images aren’t limited to still lifes of food. 

19. Connect the dots.

Unlike some Instagram accounts, Sweetgreen’s is not an island unto itself. Hashtagged posts take followers back to the company’s Tumblr page (Passion x Purpose) where they can find recipes, limited-time offers, blog entries and links to get back to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  

20. Share your culture.

Sweetgreen’s feed is more than a stream of pretty pictures—it’s a visual reflection of its culture. Photos of a staff farm-to-rooftop dinner, Meet-the-Farmer video outtakes, the company’s school-outreach program and meal and song pairings from the Sweetlife music festival bring the fast-casual concept’s hip vibe and social consciousness alive. 

21. Don’t skimp on hashtags.

Sweetgreen has created a number of targeted hashtags to tell their story. These include #scratchmade and #sgtestkitchen (celebrations of ingredients), #drinkresponsibly (promoting healthy beverages),#sginschools, #sgfarmtrip, #shareyourgreens (fan photos) and #sweetlife2014  (music festival). Hashtags unique to a brand engage followers, encourage reposts and motivate fans to post pictures using those tags. 

22. Turn the feed over to fans.

Applebee’s took the pressure off its marketing team by tapping its “neighborhood” of 18,000 followers to build an entirely user-generated Instagram feed. Fans first register at a microsite to allow their pics to be posted—giving Applebee’s the bonus of access to their information. Then everything with a #fantographer or #Applebees hashtag is fair game. Close to 200 posts appeared in the first few weeks. Although Applebee’s is not the first to fill their feed with fan photos, doing so for a whole year is a new strategy. 

23. Show us your straw.

The signature purple straw at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is its current muse on Instagram. In July, followers were instructed to cut one inch off the straw’s end and use it as a lens through which to snap smartphone pics. Scenic photos surrounded by a purple haze (left) are now streaming on Instagram with the hashtag #purplestrawcam. The idea not only builds virtual traffic—there are now over 24,ooo followers—it builds foot traffic. To get the straw, posters have to visit one of the 302 U.S. stores. 

24. Cultivate a star.

Instagram followers want to feel like insiders—a strategy California Pizza Kitchen embraces. Brian Sullivan, CPK’s head of culinary innovation, shows up in videos and how-to photos, tossing pizza dough, developing menu items, creating special spice blends and highlighting seasonal ingredients through #CPKitchen. Food and cocktail images dominate, but the feed also offers promotions, sweepstakes and ideas for celebrations to keep the content lively for the 7,000 fans. 

Fail: Miscalculating millennials.

In August, when McDonald’s ran a campaign for its Bacon Clubhouse  Burger on Instagram, there was backlash from those who objected to the sponsored ads in their feeds. It aimed to appeal to millennials, but the blatant messaging was a turn-off, prompting the negative comments, said Adweek. 

25. Cater to your neighbors.

Many restaurant operations use LinkedIn to post company profiles and recruit employees, but few are leveraging the platform’s primary attribute—professional networking. LinkedIn is a more effective tool than Facebook or Twitter for connecting operators with local businesses that may be prospects for corporate catering or in-restaurant meetings. Denver-based Mad Greens puts this brand of hyperlocal marketing to work through LinkedIn, targeting everyone from executives to administrative assistants near each of its 12 Colorado locations. The health-oriented concept’s page links to its catering menu, posts catering deals and promotions and runs comments from pleased customers about how stress-free, creative and responsive the catering program is. 

26. Now you see it, now you don’t.

A newcomer to the social-media fight, Snapchat is proving popular with the younger generation. In fact, it’s the favored social-media site for Gen Zers, according to marketing firm Sparks & Honey. To connect with this market, Burger King was an early adopter, using Snapchat to get word out about the revival of its much-in-demand Chicken Fries this August. To build up its following before the announcement, as well as to generate buzz, Burger King sent out Facebook and Twitter posts alerting followers that big news would be announced via Snapchat, providing its username and a suggestive illustration of what was to come. News of the menu item’s return spread as quickly as the Snapchat message could appear and disappear, getting about 150,000 social-media mentions in the campaign’s first three days.

27. Invite fans to “Hangout.”

Many restaurants take a set-it-up-and-forget-it approach to Google Plus, but its numbers make it hard to ignore. According to Forrester, top brands have 90 percent as many fans on Google Plus as on Twitter. And their posts generate nearly as much engagement per follower as on Facebook and almost twice as much as on Twitter. In December, Dunkin’ Donuts tried hosting a live Top Chef-style competition via Google Hangout to promote its partnership with the Bravo TV show. The cross-platform contest had fans post recipes tagged #DDTopChef on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Then on Dec. 11, during a live Hangout on Google+, Dunkin’s chefs cooked the finalists’ dishes and crowned a winner. Turnout was low, but Dunkin’ told ClickZ it was the right venue because of the platform’s ability to connect many viewers at once to a live video chat.

28. Inspire, but also be inspired.

While Pinterest currently is testing sponsored posts with a handful of companies, a reported half-million brands are connecting directly with consumers via their own corporate-run Pinterest pages and boards. The audience? The network’s estimated 40 million users, 85 percent of whom are women. It’s a user base that’s already engaged, visiting the site for ideas and inspiration rather than to socialize. Chipotle, Starbucks (which pins under the moniker “Starbucks Loves”) and Cracker Barrel are among the brands that use their Pinterest boards to make an emotional connection with followers—the latter posting “pins” on topics such as “road trips,” “American pride” and “front-porch living.” Earlier this year, Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee turned the tables, asking its 2,000 Pinterest followers to share what inspires them, then using those pins (hashtagged #InspireCaribou) to inform the ingredients for its “Real Inspiration Blend.” The strategy included the creation of a 3-D Pinterest board at the Mall of America and ultimately earned 11 million media impressions, the coffee chain reports.

What Taco Bell knows ...

Some restaurant execs still can’t tell a tweet from a snap, but  Taco Bell has embraced the social mediaverse as a crucial route to higher sales, greater consumer awareness and more efficient recruitment. It’s gone as far as to reconfigure its home office, corralling its social-media squad in a section known as the Center for Social Excellence.  Another room (The Fishbowl) has screens that display social-media conversations in real time.

Its approach landed Taco Bell the No. 1 spot in Digital CoCo’s 2013 ranking of restaurants’
social-media effectiveness and earned OMG!s from beyond the industry. It’s particularly “liked” for viewing social media as distinct channels, each with its own peculiarities, and not pushing the same message on all platforms. Other reasons it’s winning:

  • Alacrity. Taco Bell reacted quickly when one worker posted a photo of another licking taco shells. The licker was booted, and  the shooter left on his own.
  • Frequency. Posts are rapid-fire, drawing material from third-party comments on the brand or its products, which tends to foster a dialogue.
  • Employee trust. Hourlies of the company and its franchises test and tweet about new products, with corporate’s blessing.
  • One voice. It sees consumers as potential employees, so the idea of a Taco Bell tribe is as crucial to tout as a product or a visit. 

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