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.”