In February, Taco Bell made the long-awaited announcement that it would soon launch the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco, a follow-up to 2012’s fanfare-inducing and record-shattering Doritos Locos Taco.

But it didn’t break the news through a press release or company statement. Instead, its nearly 10 million Facebook fans and close to 400,000 Twitter followers were privy to the information before any media outlet or competitor got their hands on it.

The online buzz and excitement generated by the Cool Ranch taco not only led the brand to experience its highest consumer-perception levels since fall 2010, but it also stood as a testament to the power the Internet, and social media in particular, has for brands across the board.

And though in this day and age having an online presence is a necessity, there’s something that’s even more important: protecting it.

The perks of being online

Like it or not, having an online presence is a reality for any modern quick-service brand, says Mark Liu, director of restaurant marketing firm Gourmet Marketing. “The conversation is happening, and if you’re not participating, then you don’t really get a say in what information is being circulated,” he says, adding that an established online voice can help concepts with marketing and branding, as well as building a strong reputation both online and off.

“At no time before were you able to talk directly to customers, address concerns on the spot in a multimedia format, and really engage with them on a very personal level,” he says.

Having an online presence can also help a brand steer business at the unit level and build greater brand equity, says Mike Zammuto, president of Reputation Changer, an online reputation management firm. “Specifically, it can be used to build excitement about new brands, new locations, new lines, promotional items, and things like that, and really try to get some buzz going,” he says. When a brand promotes itself in this positive light, it can help ensure that customers hear its story in its own words, Zammuto adds.

Further, interacting with guests online can clue brands into the latest trends and customer desires, influencing everything from how they promote products to what markets to enter next. Dunkin’ Donuts has experienced this firsthand on many occasions. “Prior to launching Dunkin’ K-Cup packs, we knew that there was a sizeable fan base on our social media channels that were eagerly awaiting their roll out,” writes Scott Hudler, vice president of global consumer engagement for Dunkin’ Donuts, in an e-mail to QSR.

By monitoring online conversations, the brand also knew the stage was set for success in California long before it announced plans to enter that market. Whether or not the brand would enter the Golden State “was the No. 1 question we received across our social media channels,” Hudler says.

A brand’s best friend

Any discussion about building and maintaining an online presence would be lacking, to say the least, without a sharp focus on social media. This growing channel of communication has become a marketing godsend for many brands, as social platforms are particularly effective at building buzz in real time and reaching fans in a more personal fashion, Zammuto says.

When employed correctly as an online marketing tool, social media can also produce tangible and positive results for business. In a study conducted by market research firm The NPD Group in the first quarter of 2012, 6 percent of restaurant visits (926 million visits) were influenced by online marketing. Even further, consumers who were driven to restaurants through online marketing were more likely to make repeat visits.

But simply employing online marketing and having an online presence doesn’t mean a brand is doing so correctly, or using it to the fullest extent. For brands to really get the most out of it, they must actively engage with and listen to their followers, says Kent Campbell, founder and chief strategist at Internet reputation management firm Reputation X.

Dunkin’ Donuts makes this type of engagement its No. 1 priority on social media, Hudler says, regularly answering fan questions, offering customer service support through social channels, and more. He adds that each interaction through social media platforms helps the brand cultivate “a highly engaged group of ‘DD fans’ that are more connected to Dunkin’ Donuts and actively share our useful content with their network of friends and followers.”

Experts interviewed for this story say it’s not only important for the content to engage fans, but it must also be authentic and useful to followers.

Liu says the strongest brands on social media—and those who reap the biggest benefits from it—separate themselves from the pack by dedicating a significant amount of time and manpower to understanding social media platforms and what kind of channels and content consumers identify with most.

“These brands understand who their clients and customers are, [and] how to reach them and engage them,” he says. “It’s being creative about what you’re posting and then looking at the data, looking at the engagement levels and what gets the most shares, what has the greatest level of virality.”

Liu says brands fare best when they place self-serving content on the back burner, focusing instead on crafting and disseminating genuinely interesting content. “You can’t think about social media in terms of, What can I post to get the most shares and retweets?” he says. “You have to think about, What am I providing to my fan base, and if I were in their shoes, would I find this cool?”

Subway is one brand that rises above the rest in the quick-service category in terms of its social activity and engagement. According to a study by global consulting firm Vivaldi Partners, Subway has the highest “social currency”—the degree to which customers share information about a brand with others—of any brand on social media.

The chain has more than 21 million Facebook fans and 1 million Twitter followers, and regularly engages with these fans online, whether it’s through social conversations with its “famous fans” like athletes Robert Griffin III and Michael Phelps or giving away free subs and gift cards on Facebook. “At the end of the day, if something is interesting, people want to share it with their friends,” says Tony Pace, chief marketing officer for Subway. “A lot of the stuff we do probably reaches that criteria of being share-worthy.”

He says building up the brand’s reputation online and through social media results in higher engagement and a stronger overall brand image. “If you’re doing lots of stuff that keeps you at the forefront of consumers’ minds and it’s interesting stuff,” he says, “they’re going to transfer positive feelings to the brand, which at the end of the day benefits the brand and the business.”


Crisis averted

Unfortunately, brands aren’t always able to use their online presence to simply spread a brand-building message. At times, they must also harness the power of social media and the Internet to spin a bad situation—a crisis, even—into something positive.

Just look at Taco Bell. In 2011, the company was hit by a class-action lawsuit calling into question the content of its beef, causing even the most avid Taco Bell fans to reconsider their allegiance to the brand. But the chain wasted no time getting back on its feet, relying on its social media resources to do so. Not only did it tweet statements from CEO Greg Creed denying the claims, but it also uploaded a video to YouTube and Facebook of Creed proudly detailing the ingredients in its meat.

“They wanted to move the conversation forward,” Zammuto says of Taco Bell’s post-crisis social media efforts. “They explained, they moved on, they apologized, and then they started working back on building their brand and focusing people on the things that they like about Taco Bell.”

Another Yum! Brands concept, KFC, has dealt with its own PR crisis online more recently after a scandal broke out in China late last year involving chicken that was believed to contain excessive levels of antibiotics. Though the brand stayed relatively mum to begin with, it met the situation head-on earlier this year when it launched “Operation Thunder.” The online mission aims to help KFC China rebound from the blow to its reputation, and includes everything from a website detailing the efforts the brand will take to ensure safe chicken to a poetry contest on social media, which asked fans to pen poems including the phrase, “The chickens are innocent.”

In good times and bad

Not every negative situation has such a happy ending. Even the tale of Taco Bell’s social success during the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco launch has another side to the story. When the chain revealed that its social media fans and followers could gain exclusive access to the new taco a day before it hit stores nationwide, fans went nuts. But as March 6 rolled around and many fans discovered their local restaurant didn’t have the tacos yet, they took to Facebook and Twitter to express their ire for the whole world to see.

This goes to show that even the strongest concepts will occasionally have their failures and weaknesses broadcast online to an audience of millions, whether through a tweet, post, or review. And these bad reviews—especially those on popular review sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon—can hurt, particularly in terms of the sales they might cause a brand or unit to miss out on.

In a study from the University of California, Berkeley, released last September, a half-star ratings improvement on Yelp was shown to increase a restaurant’s business during peak dining hours by nearly 20 percent. Further, a separate study from Harvard Business School shows that a one-star improvement on Yelp can lead to a 5–9 percent increase in revenue (though it’s important to note that these results may not be as powerful for chain restaurants, which often have an already-established reputation).

This means brands must not only be prepared to face a bad review or complaint every now and then, but they also need a plan in place for how to react when they creep up, says Reputation X’s Campbell. Though the knee-jerk reaction may be to simply ignore the criticism—or worse, respond in anger—he says brands must be able to handle these situations calmly, no matter how scathing or damaging the review.

“That’s why it’s wonderful to be able to have the resources of a third party who can very calmly approach these things and offer a cool, calm viewpoint on the correct way to respond,” Campbell adds.

But responding to complaints and poor reviews can be tricky, at best, and often becomes a catch-22. When brands don’t respond, they’re seen as ambivalent toward and unappreciative of customer concerns and feedback. But when they do respond, it not only extends the conversation—inviting others to react and put in their two cents, too—but also increases the strength of the criticism, Zammuto says. “What you’re inadvertently doing is helping ensure that this controversy will rank up really high in search engine results,” he says.

In cases when a response is unavoidable, Zammuto says, it’s best to offer one out of the public eye, whether through a phone call, e-mail, or private message. “If you don’t respond to a tweet, it very quickly ends up at the bottom of people’s tweet streams,” he says. “But every time you respond, it comes back up to the beginning again.”

It’s also wise to understand that not every complaint or disparaging review holds equal weight in the online sphere. Campbell says important social figures, known as “influencers,” are the most crucial to pay attention to online. “If you’re being hated by somebody in your industry who’s an influencer, you want to jump on that immediately and honestly and deal with that as quickly as possible,” he says.

On the other hand, if the critic is simply a low-impact individual with a complaint against a brand or unit, it’s often best to handle the problem privately. “If there’s a blog out there and it’s sitting on page three of search results and they write something negative about your restaurant, you may not want to comment directly on it,” Campbell says. Responding could refresh the page and invite more commentary from others, and “that activity will trigger a search engine to … probably make that negative [comment] rise in search results,” he says.

A poor review on a high-profile site like Yelp or UrbanSpoon, unfortunately, is difficult to hide from the public view, Campbell says. “It doesn’t matter so much if you go and refresh the page and respond,” he says. “That Yelp page is probably getting refreshed often anyway, and it’s already a strong site that’s going to be high in search results.”

This presents an especially dangerous situation for brands, considering 95 percent of people using search engines spend their time on the first page of search results, Campbell says. The first result, on average, gets clicked on 42–45 percent of the time, he says, while bottom search results on the first page only get clicked on 3 percent of the time.

Regardless of how—or if—a brand chooses to respond, Liu says, it must realize that it “runs the risk of conveying the wrong message or there being miscommunication. You have to understand the nature of how you’re communicating.”

Subway’s Pace says this is one way in which online marketing greatly differs from traditional marketing. “You have to be comfortable with the fact that you’re not going to be able to control how the messaging rolls out,” he says.

“If you’re OK with taking a little bit [of risk] on, knowing that everything’s not going to go exactly the way you want but knowing that there could be big benefits,” he says, “then you take the appropriate steps.”

Consumer Trends, Marketing & Promotions, Story, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Taco Bell