How to rock social media

What separates the weak from the strong in social media? To find out, we partnered with Washington, D.C.-based social media analytics firm newBrandAnalytics to identify the top 10 social media powerhouses in the industry (see page 98) and discover what it is they’re doing to get people buzzing about them online. What we learned: It’s all about engagement. According to Susan Ganeshan, chief marketing officer for newBrandAnalytics, authentic, frequent engagement with consumers on a variety of social media platforms can pay real dividends in terms of  consumers’ perception of a restaurant brand.

“We’ve found that if a brand increases its engagement with consumers on social media by just 1 percent, it will get an overall increase of 11 percent to 25 percent in positive sentiment on social media,” Ganeshan says. “We’ve also found that brands that respond to both negative and positive feedback in a timely manner have the most success on social media.” Quick, friendly and sincerely apologetic responses to negative reviews can turn a disgruntled guest into a repeat customer. Ganeshan further reminds operators not to forget about Yelp, TripAdvisor and other social media channels beyond Facebook and Twitter.

To get a first-hand idea of what techniques are most successful in social media channels, we reached out to the top 10 powerhouses for their best practices. Going beyond responding to complaints and posting the usual food photos, these social media strategies have registered on the engagement meter.

It can be as simple as building relationships with guests, says Adam Baker, president and co-founder of the No. 6 concept on the list, Colorado-based Larkburger.

Baker says his company concentrates on just three channels—Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. “We believe it’s important to focus where we can truly connect with fans,” he says. “Instagram has helped us find fan content that we can share on our other outlets. We’ve had a lot of success giving ‘shout-outs’ on Facebook; that channel tends to be where we show fan appreciation.” Larkburger invites guests into the conversation on Facebook, for example, with posts designed to rev up the Colorado-proud audience, including photos featuring families doing outdoorsy activities and Denver Broncos-themed posts. Twitter is where the brand interacts directly with customers—all day, every day—through messages and responses that show off their Colorado cred, such as “Who’s voting for #colorado @skicrestedbutte as best ski town in @PowderMagazine’s ski town throwdown?” or “Oh gosh … it’s a little drive, but we have a location on Alameda Ave.”

“Be human,” Baker says. “Relate your social media actions to real life. If you were at a party you wouldn’t talk about yourself the whole time. You would find common bonds to talk to people about or you’d learn new things. Don’t be the narcissist at the party.”

Thinking of social media as a conversation at a party also works for Florida-based Datz Deli, No. 5 on the list. AshleeAnne Palmer, marketing manager for the brand says the company has a saying: “Social media is like a cocktail party. You have to make the party [fun] for people to want to come.” Palmer says the best social media strategy is to act on social media as if you were at a party—present, friendly and engaging but not too in your face.

Palmer says the team looks for anything funny or thought-provoking for its Facebook feed. For example, they recently posted a photo of a nativity scene made out of bacon with the caption: “Why yes, this is a Christmas bacon manger. #SorryNotSorry.” The thinking is that people are more inclined to share and interact when they have a common interest with what has been posted.

“Engage, engage, engage,” says Palmer. “If someone complains, don’t defend your brand, empathize. Make sure your consumers know that you make mistakes, you acknowledge your mistakes and fix them. It has been incredibly successful for Datz when we let people know how human we are too.”

Palmer encourages operators to use Facebook for more informative posts, not just selling. For example, instead of pushing the restaurant’s Minty Mocha on fans with a simple photo, Datz’s Facebook post also included the ingredients and the hashtag: #ChristmasInAGlass.

Twitter is the place for more real-time interaction and availability, Palmer says. “We have people talking to us all day long. They check in, tell us what they eat, send us bacon info. They get used to knowing that we are always around because we are. It’s strange because we don’t have to fish to get people to tell us about their meal at Datz. Our real-time responses have fostered a loyal customer base because we follow them back, participate in Twitter parties, live tweet events and talk to them about their lives and not just their food. We look through our newsfeed and talk to our guests like a normal person would talk to their Twitter friends.”

This fostered what Palmer says is a brand page that acts like a personal page. “Our customers know that if they tweet us about anything we aren’t going to talk back and try to sell them on our product,” she says.

Top Social Media Chains Overall

These 10 brands have got it going on, according to their social media fans. This list speaks to what people in social media are saying about the brands. According to newBrandAnalytics, these restaurants are great in social buzz, have positive overall sentiment for all categories—especially food and service—and have high loyalty. These brands average overall ratings of 90+ (on a scale of 1 to 100) where the rest of the market has scores averaging around 75.

1. Tasti D-Lite and Planet Smoothie

Facebook: tastidlite; 7,400+ likes
planetsmoothie; 61,300+ likes
Twitter: @tastidlite; 7,900+ followers
@PlanetSmoothie; 2,400+ followers

Tasti D-Lite acquired Planet Smoothie in 2011, and the sister chains, based in Franklin, Tenn., claimed the top spot on our list because of their vocal fan base. There currently are more than 30 Tasti D-Lites and more than 100 Planet Smoothie locations around the country, many of which maintain individual social media pages, generating
increased local sentiment.

Engagement tactics: Tasti D-Lite hosted a contest on Facebook in New York City where fans could go to one of the brand’s locations, snap a photo of Fillmore Cups, the brand’s cup-shaped mascot, and share the photo on social media with the hashtag #findfillmore. Fans who participated were entered in a contest to win a $100 gift card.

Sample buzz: @tastidlite The location on 85th and Amsterdam is particularly fantastic! The staff goes above and beyond to be friendly and accommodating, and the flavors are always delicious. This is the best location in the city! Bravo to whomever manages that location!

2. Fifth Group Restaurants

Facebook: fifthgrouprestaurants;
2,200+ likes
Twitter: @FifthGrouper; 8,000+ followers

This multiconcept operator’s portfolio includes South City Kitchen and Ecco in the Atlanta area. Each restaurant maintains its own Facebook page, posting photos, celebrity guest sightings and special announcements—some more than others. South City Kitchen Midtown, for example, has more than 4,000 likes and 15,000 check-ins.

Engagement tactics: The company’s Facebook page has a gallery of guests’ Instagram photos of Fifth Group restaurant food that gets a number of likes every time they update it. The tagline: “Your photos. Our food.” One recent photo of Lure’s crab dip received the following positive comment: “Ooooooo, may have decided where we need to go!”

Sample buzz: I really enjoyed my lunch on Sept 27th. I had the Catfish Reuben sandwich—which was delicious!!! Really appreciated the awesome service we received from Chad. I was visiting from the San Francisco Bay Area and had never been to the south before. Chad was great with recommendations for lunch and drinks. Seriously one of the best meals I had in Atlanta. Thank you!!

3. Pie Five

Facebook: PieFivePizza; 6,100+ likes
Twitter: @PieFivePizza; 1,100+ followers

Pie Five is the Dallas-based fast-casual sister chain to Pizza Inn. It offers tailor-made pizzas with a choice of more than 21+ fresh toppings, seven sauces and three crusts. It offers signature pizzas as well. The company has 18 locations and counting.

Engagement tactics: A lot of Pie Five’s social media sentiment is based on the customization aspect of the business, with customers raving about how they hit upon a winning combination. One example is this tweet, which included a photo of the customer’s creations: “@PieFivePizza with Whole grain & veggies for me... Every meat known to man for him #OppositesAttract.”
The brand also is expanding rapidly so most of the liked posts on Facebook announce openings and free pizza giveaways at new locations. Eager fans tweet the brand to find out where the chain is opening next  and even offer their own advice.

Sample buzz: @PieFivePizza I might be just a bit excited about the opening of Pie Five Pizza in the Lenexa KS area. Go give their location some love at Pie Five Pizza. I’m ready to do some work on a Mediterranean or a Five Star ASAP.

4. Sweetgreen

Facebook: sweetgreen; 20,100+ likes
Twitter: @sweetgreen; 12,800+ followers

Washington, D.C.-based Sweetgreen has 23 locations in five states and its hometown. The fast-casual concept offers healthful, seasonal menus focused on salads, wraps and vegetable sides.

Engagement tactics: On YouTube (@sweetgreen), the company’s video subjects range from new location introductions to a day in the life of Sweetgreen employees and visits with local farmers. Sweetgreen also isn’t afraid to show a sense of humor. A recent post on Facebook included a beauty shot of one of the brand’s salads along with the caption: “Winter is coming #gameofgreens,” a reference to HBO’s “Game of Thrones”
television show.

Sample buzz: @sweetgreen I love this place. Most salad places are intimidating and their salad combos are not that great. I love the Kale Caesar! I’m impressed at how fresh everything is at sweetgreen.

5. Datz

Facebook: Datz4foodies; 21,700+ likes
Twitter: @Datz4foodies; 7,486 followers

What originally opened as a sandwich shop quickly morphed into a full-service restaurant. Tampa, Fla.’s Datz, its next-door bakery Dough and a foodie marketplace that sells Datz-approved wares offer “comfort food with flair,” according to its website. Its social media personality also isn’t shy about the restaurant’s obsession with all things bacon and booze.

Engagement tactics: One of Datz’s more successful social media campaigns is Tag it Tuesdays, where it posts a fun photo and asks fans to tag their friends. Datz randomly awards a few “taggers” and “tagees” with prizes, such as free appetizers or desserts.

Sample buzz: @Datz4foodies Saw this and immediately thought of Datz and Dough.[User posted a photo that read “Every day thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians. Help end the
violence. Eat Bacon.”]

6. Larkburger

Facebook: larkburger; 9,100+ likes
Twitter: @larkburger; 3,300+ followers

A 12-location burger chain based in Arvada, Colo., Larkburger offers gourmet burgers featuring all-natural ingredients as well as milkshakes, salads and sides such as the chain’s popular Truffle Parmesan French Fries, which get a lot of play on Facebook and Twitter.

Engagement tactics: Larkburger takes full advantage of its Colorado roots, rewarding fans who tag photos of themselves engaging in activities such as skiing or snowboarding with free burgers if they use the hashtag #bestofcolorado. The brand recently held social media contests to name its loyalty program and participated in a contest for the ultimate Colorado experience, which included lunch at Larkburger. 

Sample buzz: @larkburger I had a delicious lunch yesterday at your Arvada location. And the young woman in charge of the dining area around 2 pm was doing an excellent job—keep up the good work, y’all (:

7. Darden Restaurants

The multiconcept operator of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze doesn’t maintain a corporate social media presence, mostly leaving social media to its restaurant brands. For example, Olive Garden has more than 5 million likes on Facebook and more than 104,500 followers on Twitter. The Capital Grille has 118,800 likes on Facebook and more than 3,200 followers on Twitter.

Engagement tactics: Each of Darden’s restaurants does its own thing with social media. Standouts include Red Lobster, which has LobStar of the Week where it encourages fans to post photos from their last trip to Red Lobster, and Olive Garden, which has photo face-offs where fans vote on their favorite dish based on its photos.

Sample buzz: @BahamaBreeze Just discovered Bahama Breeze. Went to Happy Hour at a ... location recently and the appetizers were great, drinks great and the waitstaff at both places were the most upbeat, knowledgeable and professional I’ve encountered in a long time!!

8. Potbelly Sandwich Shop

Facebook: potbellysandwichshop;
37,400+ likes
Twitter: @potbelly; 9,500+ followers

With more than 280 locations around the country, Chicago-based Potbelly has grown quickly in the last few years. The chain also features live music in each of its locations, which gives social media fans something else to talk about beyond the sandwiches, milkshakes and cookies.

Engagement tactics: Many of Potbelly’s Facebook posts tie into obscure holidays. For example, a post about Wear Brown Shoes Day encouraged fans to put on their brown shoes, and “head to Potbelly and pick up a bag to match!” Another example: For Barbershop Quartet Appreciation Day the brand posted, “Did you know the Wreck has the best quartet EVER? Salami, Roast Beef, Turkey and Ham. Mmmm… they’re singing to me now…” and got more than 50 likes.

Sample feedback: @potbellysandwichshop Had a great delivery guy, Craig, from your downtown Cleveland location—super nice and friendly! Will definitely be ordering from Potbelly’s again.

9. Nando’s

Facebook: Nandos.Restaurants; 1.5 million likes
Twitter:  @ NandosUSA; 6,000+ followers

Founded in South Africa, Nando’s operates about 1,000 outlets in 30 countries on five continents, including 14 in the U.S. in the Washington, D.C., area. Its social media sentiment is high because of the company’s international customer base, which is passionate about the chain’s Peri-Peri Chicken. Nando’s maintains social media channels for different countries. For example, its U.K. Twitter account has 1.2 million followers.

Engagement tactics: Nando’s most popular posts tie into pop culture. The brand got more than 300 likes for a photo of one of its cafe’s booths and the lamp above the table. The caption: “We love lamp #Anchorman2,” a reference to a famous Steve Carell line in the movie franchise. Also popular was a photo of the Nando’s wings with the caption, “50 Extra Hot wings for the 50th anniversary of#DoctorWho? Don’t mind if we do!”

Sample buzz: @nandos.restaurants Just ate at the new restaurant in Gainesville, Virginia, must say that it was the best chicken I have had in a very long time. I will be recommending it to my friends and family.

10. ZOËs Kitchen

Facebook: ZoesKitchen; 104,000+ likes
Twitter: @ZoesKitchen; 7,600+ followers

With 100+ locations around the country, Birmingham, Ala.-based Zoës Kitchen uses its social media channels to tout its Mediterranean-inspired comfort food. The chain also offers recipes for customers to try at home that use its products.

Engagement tactics: Zoës Kitchen’s social media posts often offer fans healthy recipes that utilize the brand’s take-home sides. Example post: “Need a quick and easy recipe this week before all the Thanksgiving cooking begins? Try our make-at-home Pita Pizzas with our Fresh Takes Hummus to go. The kids can assemble their own!” These appeal to customers who want home-cooked meals, but may be too time-pressed to cook completely from scratch.

Sample buzz: @ZoesKitchen always takes care of us! Love their Goodies program and healthy options. Location on Washington Ave. is a favorite.

Top operations for food

These concepts had high scores for consumers making positive remarks about their food in social media.

  1. Sweetgreen
  2. Fifth Group
  3. Le Pain Quotidien
  4. Darden
  5. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

Top operations for service

  1. Elevation Burger
  2. Parásole
  3. Donovan’s Prime Restaurants
  4. Legal Sea Foods
  5. Not Your Average Joe’s

Top operations for pricing and value

  1. Taco Bueno
  2. Moe’s Southwest Grill
  3. Miller’s Ale House
  4. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
  5. Sonic Drive-In


Mystery shops were conducted by Service Intelligence. Visits were completed between Sept. 20 and Oct. 24, 2013. Visits could be completed any time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m; shoppers could visit the restaurant when they desired. Shoppers ordered in and dined in. All ordered a sandwich and a drink, and were asked to observe the menu, the cleanliness of the unit and the promotion of technology, social media and loyalty programs. Overall scores were calculated using all scored questions on the survey. Category scores were calculated using all scored questions in that category. Each question was given equal weighting. 

Five Good Habits of Social Media Stars

Have a personality: All of these brands have a “voice” to their posts. Whether professional or quirky, the messages invite customers to connect on a more personal level.

Reply RIGHT AWAY: Showing fans that your brand is active on social media will pay dividends down the road. That way they know you’ll be there when they really need something. Also, be sure to reply in a timely manner, especially on Twitter. Consumers expect almost instant responses.

Apologize sincerely for mistakes: Consumers know mistakes happen. What they want to hear is an apology and that your company is taking steps to make sure their problem doesn’t happen to someone else.

Have a dedicated social media staff: All these tips are nothing without someone dedicated to carrying them out. Whether it’s a whole team or just one person, you need someone combing through all the social media channels looking for ways to engage with customers. It’s a full-time job and can’t be done effectively as just part of someone’s job.

Don’t oversell: Obviously you want to use social media to promote your business, but it can be more than that. Post articles or photos you think your fans would find interesting. Posting more than just sales pitches will encourage consumers to actually read your posts when they pop up in their newsfeeds, not just glaze over them like any other advertisement.

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