As Berry Chill founder and CEO Michael Farah implemented his plans to open the first of his three Chicago-area locations, he took a bizarre step for a business yet to open: He set up a Facebook page before ever selling its first treat.

“I wanted to build buzz on the brand,” he says. “I wanted to target a younger audience, and Facebook was an easy way to find our customer base.” His friends initially comprised the majority of his fans, but thanks to strong word-of-mouth, the Berry Chill page had 500 fans before the grand opening. 

Today, Berry Chill maintains an online presence on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare. It has amassed about 10,000 Facebook fans and more than 3,000 Twitter followers. A major reason behind these numbers is that the company puts out information that engages both existing and potential customers. “Don’t tweet only about the product,” Farah says. “Post things customers will find interesting. Keep it fresh.”

A glance at the Berry Chill Facebook page shows posts that do just that, like the one that says, “What are you doing this weekend?! Shoot a PB&J video to try to win A YEAR’S WORTH OF Berry Chill!”

These types of posts work, because they actively seek input from customers, says Mary Beth Huffman, CEO of Carpentersville, Illinois-–based IMPACT Marketing & Public Relations. “It’s like having a conversation,” she says. “Think of it as communicating with people on the other side of your computer.” 

Tiffany Rosenberger, manager of marketing innovation for the Chattanooga, Tennessee–based burger chain Krystal, says her company plan is to create more of a lifestyle page on Facebook. While there are posts announcing special events or new store openings, the Krystal Facebook social media outlets—including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and YouTube—focus more on its customer following. 

For instance, a recent Facebook conversation centered around the Hall of Fame event where Krystal fans could get their name and photo on a Krystal burger box. The original post read, “Hey, Krystal Lovers! We want to hear your Krystal stories and see more of your shining faces on a Krystal Box. To create your own personalized box, just click the Hall of Fame tab above.”

Rosenberger says this approach focuses on the quality of follower, not the quantity. “It’s a relationship with your customer,” she says. “It’s a great long-term strategy. I think it promotes awareness.” 

Asking direct questions is another way to get consumers involved with a quick-serve brand. “We put things out there when we really want to know something,” says Justin McCoy, director of marketing for Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin–based Cousins Subs, which operates 150 locations in six states. “I think they know we’re interested.” 

The company used such a post during a recent headquarters visit by potential franchisees: “We have a group of potential franchisee candidates in today. Please tell them where you’d like to see the next Cousins Subs location.” About 50 people responded with their preferences. 

Using photographs and video is another way to spark consumer interest. Farah suggests using bright and colorful product shots to grab customers’ attention. Krystal promoted its Krystal Blitz energy drink with a social media scavenger hunt, placing clues in videos on YouTube. Fans had to follow the company’s profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube to participate. 

While sites like YouTube and Facebook offer operators the ability to be flexible and post as many videos or messages as they please, Twitter, with its 140-character limit, forces quick serves to be to the point. “If there’s a quick shout-out, you can use that,” Farah says. “If you want something longer, use it to direct them to Facebook, your blog, etc.” 

Twitter users can use the search function to find all mentions of certain keywords or phrases, such as a brand or product name, to see what followers are saying about them. McCoy says quick serves should keep updated with what customers are saying, and use that to guide the social media conversation. “We’ve used Twitter to monitor anytime we’re talked about so we can respond to customers,” he says. 

Of course, quick-serve operators need to be careful to promote the right awareness for their brand—and to keep social media talk fresh. “If you’re saying the same thing over and over, it will fall on deaf ears,” McCoy says. “That will get you blocked.” 

Another mistake operators should never make is offending anyone on social media. 

Rosenberger says that offensive statements are one issue, but that the defensive statements from operators can take it one step further. “Don’t be combative to unhappy or angry customers,” she says.

This was a lesson learned the hard way by David Menestres and Carrie Nickerson, owners of the Crumb bakery in Raleigh, North Carolina. After posting the tagline “So Good It Makes Fat People Cry” as their business slogan, the owners received a complaint from a customer who took offense to the language. The owners countered with negative responses to the customer on Twitter, which were discovered and dispersed by the blogosphere, sparking a “Boycott Crumb” Facebook page (now called “Fat is Not a Character Flaw”). 

As a result, Menestres and Nickerson were forced to remove the tagline from the business website and issue an apology on its blog. But the damage was already done. 

Indeed, social media can be a blessing and a curse for operators. Farah says they are left to simply make the most of the social media environment. 

“It allows people to market your product without them even knowing it,” he says. “It’s like you create an army of marketers for your product.”

That army of marketers can carry a brand to mass success, but Huffman says quick serves must remember that success won’t happen overnight. 

“It takes time and patience,” she says. “You may not see an effect in six months, although you may see it sooner than that.”

Marketing & Promotions, Story, Berry Chill, Cousins Subs, Krystal