Now that social media has lost its novelty, Dairy Queen’s Michael Keller is having a flashback as he considers the near-term possibilities for Facebook, Twitter, or whatever buzz-maker might next set fingers a-flutter.

“You know that moment right before you drop on a rollercoaster? You’re very excited, you’re having fun, but there’s a little fear?

“That’s what I’m feeling a lot these days,” confesses the 5,600-unit chain’s chief brand officer.

He’s not the only restaurant executive to suffer a few white-knuckle moments in the transition to Social Media 2.0. Pronounced skepticism is giving way to an appreciative embrace of the new-age communication channels by chains large and small. The quick-service market is shaking off its initial apprehension to become one of the most avid business users of social media, according to consultants specializing in that area. Instead of being dragged along, quick serves are jumping out in front—smack into some discomfort zones.

For one thing, there’s the nerve-wracking experience of standing mute as others do the talking about and for your brand.

As the conversations in social media grow louder and more inclusive, their direction and nature are changing, marketers say. They liken the early days of social media discussions to having a brand representative stand at a podium and address a crowd. Individuals in the audience might respond to the speaker, but the talk is all between consumer and brand.

Now, by evolution or design, that scene is turning into more of a cocktail party, with audience members chatting with other audience members about whatever catches their fancy. No longer is the brand advocate in complete control, and that’s eliciting some pointed OMG!s from veteran chain marketers.

“The evolution is to situations where brands are going to be listening more instead of talking,” says Jonathan Treiber, CEO of online marketing firm RevTrax.

Keller not only sees that community dynamic reshaping social media, but plans to foster such a virtual gathering spot for DQ customers this spring. He declines to reveal details, but says the initiative will be “something no other restaurant company has done.” He says the venture will build on the public’s cult-like interest in the Blizzard, the signature mix-in frozen treat that celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

Indeed, a community is already gelling around the product. A “fanbook” Web site for the Blizzard Fan Club already has 2.2 million registrants who offer comments and look for information from the home office about the item. “We’ll go past 2.5 million members in 2010,” Keller says. “We will turn this from a fan club into more of a community. Our hope is to have them talk to each other. We even joke about it becoming a place where you might find a date.”

The community will provide a new way to foster a connection between consumers and DQ, he says. But “we know the conversation will be beyond our control. To be a true community, you have to step back and accept that.” And that, Keller says, runs contrary to the marketer’s instinct of programming precisely what’s said about a brand in airspace the brander provides.

DQ isn’t alone in taking a gulp and turning over a street corner of cyberspace to any consumer who wants to lug along a soapbox. Starbucks drew plenty of “huhs?” in 2008 when it launched MyStarbucksIdea, a freestanding (and freewheeling) Web site that invites fans of the coffee chain to pose ideas to management. The suggestions can be seen by all members, who are encouraged to weigh in with their opinions of peers’ ideas. If the executives spot a notion worth exploring, they say as much publicly, then provide updates of the assessment, undaunted by possible eavesdropping from competitors, journalists, or detractors.

The conversation can even veer in directions a host presumably would want to avoid in a public forum. A recent posting on MyStarbucksIdea, for instance, blasted the coffee chain’s new full-leaf green tea. “I offered my wife a taste of my drink and she, too, found it almost undrinkable,” the poster wrote. He implored the chain to bring back the shredded-leaf version.

Keller says the Blizzard Fan Club would remain separate from DQ’s Facebook fan page and its 752,000 registrants. “We’re looking to leverage that in 2010” as well, he says. Keller says it will remain more like the usual pages that brands or companies set up to give customers a place to learn about products and services, though supercharged with “far, far more content.”

The Blizzard Fan Club, in contrast, “is not about Dairy Queen, it’s not about the brand, it’s all about the Blizzard,” Keller says. Still, “the members tend to be some of our more engaged customers, who want to know more about the brand.” Because of the medium, “they tend to skew a little younger,” he adds.


Dairy Queen is not alone in seeing followers use social media to worship a product. KFC recently noted in a Twitter post that one of the three Facebook fan pages devoted to its gravy now boasts 160,000 registrants. “Just so you know, I personally have absolutely NOTHING to do with KFC, I just like the gravy,” says the anonymous host’s bio.

Other quick-service restaurant chains have helped the process along. McDonald’s United Kingdom arm has drawn 155,000 registrants to its Facebook fan page for the McFlurry, the burger behemoth’s answer to the Blizzard. The U.S. division set up a site for its McCafé coffee drinks,, simultaneously delivering a dig at Starbucks.

These cyber-cheering sites may not fit the definitions of online communities made up by Dairy Queen and Starbucks, but they may similarly turn the one-to-one communications of Social Media 1.0 into more of a free-spirited dialogue beyond a brand’s control.

“Our Facebook page is really customers talking to customers—that’s what a fan page is all about,” says Dave Puner, communications manager for Dunkin’ Brands and Dunkin’ Dave to the more than 43,000 people who follow the brand’s postings on Twitter. “With our 1.1 million followers at this point, there is no way we can have the sort of conversation that we do on Twitter, where it’s much more direct and one-to-one. They do start to talk to one another, and it’s fascinating to see what they’re talking about.”

Puner says the corporate employees monitoring the Facebook page for Dunkin’ might correct a falsehood that’s put forward, or invite an aggrieved customer to discuss the situation privately. But they function as trouble-shooters and voices of the brand, not conversation cops. “Not everything is warm and rosy,” he says, “but it’s good to hear what they’re saying.”

A majority of consumers using social media don’t want any heavier intervention than that, according to research from Cone, a communications company that specializes in building brand awareness. In a survey conducted in September 2009, 53 percent of the responding users said corporations should have a presence in social media, but should only interact with consumers if necessary or upon request. In other words, solve any problems users have with your brand (a function requested by 61 percent of respondents), but otherwise leave them to their conversation.

“You have to participate in a way that’s active but natural,” says Stephanie Agresta, global director of digital strategy and social media for the public relations agency Porter Novelli. “For it to be a real conversation, you can’t use corporate-speak. The volume is definitely going to go up, and the conversation is going to get very diverse.”

She dismisses any doubts that the huge and still rapidly growing body of social media users will continue to splinter into smaller and more specialized communities, a trend already shaping retail e-marketing. She points to the start-up of specialized communities like bargain-hunters who want leads and discussions specifically about high-end sample sales, or even high-end shoe sample sales. “Communities are going to grow up around very niched interests,” she says.

“It’s the natural evolution, going beyond just setting up a page to collect followers,” Agresta says. “Instead of just providing information, it’s letting customers respond to it, looking for trends, listening to the conversation, and really letting them talk among themselves.”

She and other observers expect the specialization trend to progress in step with another potential anxiety-provoker—the increased use of social media as a local sales tool. For a chain operation, that could mean letting individual branches run sales or promotional messages specific to their areas—a regional limited-time offer or the completion of a store’s renovation. The local operator or franchisee, not corporate, would be the party dispatching a brand-related message.

Agresta says it will happen in the not-too-distant future for quick-serve chains, just as it’s happening now with multiunit retailers and car dealers. Some of the chains foresee it, too, and are already teaching franchisees to use Twitter and Facebook for store-level marketing—but not without reservations.

“Right now we can set the voice and manage the tone and set the direction,” says DQ’s Keller. “What will happen when the message arises from 6,000 voices?”

It plans to find out. The franchisor intends to make social media a focus of the local-store marketing seminar it presents to franchisees during an upcoming convention.

Dunkin’ Donuts is mounting an experiment to see how franchisees might use Twitter to complement the efforts of what Dunkin’ Dave refers to in his tweets as “the DD mothership.” Operators in the chain’s South Florida region will be given a Twitter handle, DDSoFla, for promoting the brand locally along with their ad agency for the area, Puner says. “It’s very much an experiment,” he says. “We are going to be keeping an eye on it, to see what’s working, what isn’t.

“It’s part of our social media strategy,” Puner says. “At the end of the day, we’re really a chain made up of local marketing and ad committees. It just makes sense that social media be used on the local level. We’re trying to come up with a plan and systemize it for the U.S.”


Franchisees were armed with a social media policy from corporate in July, Puner says. But, he stresses, it already needs a rewrite.

For one thing, “I’d like to call them guidelines next time,” he says. And “I think it’s overwritten.” Dunkin’s philosophy on social media has been to pose a few common-sense principles (“No religion, no politics,” Puner says), choose a communicator who understands the rules and the medium, then let the conversation unfold.

Firehouse Subs won’t allow its franchisees to tweet as a face of the brand “because we fear it would dilute what we do on our fan page,” says Cecily Sorensen, director of corporate communications for the franchisor. Indeed, “we don’t have a policy for Twitter right now because we know for a fact that none of our franchisees are on it.”

Instead of turning franchisees loose to find their own social media space, the chain steered the operators to Firehouse’s Facebook fan page, urging them to converse with their respective markets’ customers inside the corporately run forum. Each of the 200 franchisees was encouraged to create a Facebook profile, just as any other Facebook user would, and to talk just as personally about their activities or businesses as any user might.

Franchisees can still interact personally with customers, but within a realm that’s monitored by Firehouse’s home office. “We keep an eye on it,” Sorensen says. “Instead of having 200-plus Facebook pages, we needed to maintain a page from here.”

That need may be felt more in the next social media age as 13 percent of social media users are now connecting with the networks via smart phones, according to Cone research, and experts say the percentage will increase exponentially.

“Someone might see something in our restaurant, take a picture of it with their phone, and have it online in no time,” Sorensen says. “We’d need to respond instantly to something like that. I’d like to say we watch the page 24/7, but we do sleep.”

The upside of social media traveling with its users is the opportunity to hook consumers while they’re close to a restaurant. Already, some chains are trying to tap into that opportunity by using social media as an instant traffic booster. It’s routine for news of a limited-time promotion or menu discount to be passed along on Twitter like the latest celebrity gossip.

“You’re going to see online communications extend offline” the way some retailers tout the surprise appearance of a designer at one of their stores, says Porter Novelli’s Agresta.

She expects the fish-where-the-fish-are approach to translate into other types of draws, like contests, games, and “selective coupons” aimed at a very narrow market.

A side benefit, she says, is that such purposeful sales tools “absolutely” provide an opportunity to gauge the return on investment for social media, phone-delivered or otherwise.

DQ’s Keller says something as simple as a promotion redemption rate can “connect the dots” between a social media promotion and its sales impact. Still, just as with the purchase of airtime on television or radio, “we can’t see an ROI. But we can see the benefits.”

Those paybacks, whether assessed in Facebook traffic or intangibles like engagement with customers, are obvious enough to shape DQ’s marketing budget for 2010. Keller allocated a percentage “in solid single digits” for social media, after using about only 1 percent of the budget for those channels in ’09.

The dollars are coming off the broadcast advertising line.



The 2009 Cone Consumer New Media Study presents the findings of an online survey conducted September 11-13, 2009 by Opinion Research among a representative U.S. sample of 1,048 adults compromising 503 men and 545 women 18 years of age and older. Respondents who indicated they never use new media sites or tools were filtered out of the survey resulting in a sample size of 587 “new media users.” The margin of error associated with a sample this size is +/- 5 percent.

Opinion Research also conducted a telephone survey on behalf of Deloitte LLP among a national probability sample of 2,008 employed adults comprising 1,000 men and 1,008 women 18 years of age and older, living in private households in the continental U.S. Interviewing for CARAVAN Surveys was completed during the period April 9-13 and 16-19, 2009. Sampling error is +/- 2.5 percent. In addition, Opinion Research conducted an online survey of 500 business executives. The sample for the study came from a panel of executives across the U.S., including company owners, directors, CEOs, controllers, EVPs, CIOs, VPs, and board members. Invitations to participate in the study were sent beginning on April 10, 2009 and data collection continued through April 17, 2009.

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• 27% true

• 67% false

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Marketing & Promotions, Story, Dairy Queen, Starbucks