Outside Insights | April 2017 | By Guest Author

How to Use Social Media as a Test Kitchen for Your Brand

Leading chains like Moe's and McAlister’s Deli are improving their menus through social media analytics.
Social media can help your restaurant craft the perfect menu, if you let it. Thinkstock
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Thanks to social media, everyone thinks they are a food critic. The number of posts mentioning restaurant service, pricing, and fare are astronomical. While platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram may often appear to be channels for restaurant-goers to share negative sentiments and experiences, they also hold a wealth of knowledge for businesses to improve their bottom lines by making informed changes.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” It’s impossible for national restaurant chains to maintain an edge over competitors without continuing to adapt. Keeping customers engaged and coming back for more often means switching up the menu and offering new options. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but restaurant owners and managers don’t know until they try. 

The most important step throughout this entire process is listening to customers and adjusting as needed—before it’s too late. Restaurant chains’ business and marketing executives shouldn’t wait until sales numbers come in to gauge the success of their menu changes; they should actively monitor and assess consumer sentiment and course-correct in real time.

Moe’s Southwest Grill and its carnitas conundrum

Some of the wackiest ideas may end up being the most successful, while some of the most mundane and simple changes receive the most backlash. Just ask Moe’s Southwest Grill.

It’s a big deal when a beloved national chain switches up its menu—or a classic item. Last year, after months of planning, perfecting and testing its new carnitas recipe, Moe’s launched the finished product in locations across the U.S., but the shift was met with unexpected negative feedback.

Despite all the preparations that went into the new offering, Moe’s failed to anticipate customers’ backlash, especially on such a large scale. No chain is ever going to have every single person love every menu item, but Moe’s was shocked to see the customer unhappiness so widespread. A deeper dive into the social conversation showed an overwhelming number of negative social media posts. The Twitter-sphere was bombarded with posts saying things like, “the change in the pork is absolutely horrible” and “I h8 it.” 

With social media analytics, national restaurant chains, like Moe’s, can uncover a lot of insights about their business and the industry, supplied with an enormous collection of customer sentiment, emotions, opinions and, most importantly, context that helps them course-correct and grow business.

Social test kitchen tips

Below are three ways restaurants like Moe’s are using social media insights to help improve their bottom lines.

1. Determine what customers want

Chains put a lot of money into research and development, but what if there were a simple way for them to uncover what customers want? Enter platforms like Twitter.

In the example of McAlister’s Deli, long known for its sweet tea, the chain turned to social media when it wanted to introduce a new green tea option. Diving into the social media conversation, the chain wanted to answer questions such as, “who’s talking about green tea?” and “what are they saying?” It quickly learned consumers often mentioned different flavors of green tea. The company knew that to be successful, it had to land on a niche flavor that would be its own, and it decided on a mango green tea. Thanks to social media, the choice was a hit and is still a popular menu option.  

2. Monitor customer reactions and adapt as needed

Today, social media is to a restaurant what a stethoscope is to a doctor. The social media conversation swirling around Moe’s pork was a telltale sign that things were going south fast. Once the social media team at Moe’s noticed a trend in the growing number of complaints about the new carnitas recipe, they immediately began to look for solutions to address (and minimize) the negative sentiment. A social media analysis uncovered the source of the problem; many people were alluding to a cinnamon-taste that didn’t belong in the carnitas. The team quickly discovered the individual restaurants needed more education and training about how to properly cook and season the pork.

3. Measure and evaluate success

Thanks to social media analytics, carnitas burritos from Moe’s began to taste infinitely better across the country. Keeping tabs on the social media conversation after providing further training to local chains, Moe’s saw a quick reversal in sentiment. The conversation volume about the pork shrunk by nearly 75 percent, and posts mentioning the new recipe became much more positive. Posts that once expressed distaste and hatred were replaced by comments like, “I love the new pork they got.”

Change is necessary in the restaurant industry to appeal to different types of consumers and to keep things fresh (no pun intended). While social media, at times, may appear to be a hotbed of negative sentiment, it offers insights that can help to improve business. Chains like Moe’s are finding social media insight to be an invaluable resource. As the largest source of public customer opinion, social media truly is the perfect test kitchen.

Ben Cockerell is the director of global marketing for Crimson Hexagon, a leading provider of social media intelligence software. He has more than 10 years of experience in marketing and communications. Previously, he served as product marketing manager for Hootsuite Media Inc., after working as the director of marketing for social startup uberVU. He has a bachelor’s degree from Emerson College and a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.