Whether it’s a new franchisee or a restaurant industry veteran, everyone knows that word of mouth and recommendations are key to driving the growth of any restaurant concept or unit. In fact, more than 90 percent of consumers say that recommendations from friends and family have the biggest effect on their purchasing behavior, according to a 2012 Nielson study.

But just what constitutes a recommendation and how they’re being made is rapidly shifting, says Paul Rand, CEO of marketing agency Zocalo Group and author of the upcoming book, Highly Recommended.

While 63 percent of consumers say direct, in-person recommendations are most trusted and powerful—according to Zocalo Group’s 2013 Recommendations Study—the rise of online and social media means trusted recommendations extend far beyond the traditional reviews.

“The No. 1 most credible source of [online] recommendations is YouTube,” Rand says. “But a friend liking a brand page and sharing that is now considered the second-most prominent form of recommendation, and third is online brand reviews.”

What’s more, Rand says restaurants—quick serves included—have a lot at stake and much to learn from understanding recommendations and the motivation behind them.

“If I’m a [quick serve], what it really boils down to is I can tell very quickly and I can look and say, ‘Why would people recommend in my category, what makes them share the most, what do they hate the most, … and how do my competitors stack up?’” Rand says.

Answering these questions can help a brand or restaurant determine what to do and what to avoid in all of its interactions with guests, increasing the likelihood that it will get a positive recommendation.

“Those restaurants that understand that and can take advantage of it can really supercharge their efforts to be the most recommended in their category,” Rand says.

Becoming the most highly recommended concept or restaurant in a particular competitive set should be every concept’s focus, he adds.

“If I’m a [quick serve], I can be looking and saying, ‘I’m going to make sure that every aspect of my business strategy is there to make sure that I’m the most highly recommended brand in my category,” Rand says. “And you have the ability to gauge your performance on a moment-by-moment basis, by the way people are sharing about you, talking about you, commenting on your food.”

He says brands also shouldn’t be afraid to ask guests to give a recommendation. “Whether you’re large or small, give people opportunities to do what you want them to do," Rand says. "People will recommend all day long when you ask them to do it.”

By Mary Avant