Online-video sites like YouTube and Vimeo have been incredibly popular with the public for the last five years, but quick serves are trying to grasp online video’s potential as a marketing vehicle.

Still, a number of operations have found success in creating brief videos that engage and entertain their Web-savvy customers.

Take Panchero’s Mexican Grill, for example. Every week, the company holds a trivia contest on Twitter. The question comes out in a tweet, along with a deadline for submitting answers, but when the winners are announced later the same day, it’s more than just 140 characters with their names—instead, it’s a link to a short video. Reid Travis, director of marketing at Coralville, Iowa–based Panchero’s Franchise Corporation, films the weekly videos and says they’ve been a big hit with customers.

“I’d say the video is far and above probably the most successful thing we’ve chosen to do,” Travis says. “It’s definitely the longest-lasting campaign we’ve ever had on social media.”

Even after three years, Travis says the program hasn’t lost its steam, where “everything else we’ve tried with social media has kind of a run-through, and then people get bored and we’ve got to come up with a new idea.”

After launching a successful video contest last year, Lauren Barash, director of public relations and communications at Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, says her team wanted to fine-tune the concept for the second go-round.

“We thought we would change it and make it a little bit more specific, because a lot of the entries last year had to do with music,” she says. This year’s version was called “Dance Your Queso Off,” and gave contestants 30 seconds to bust their best dance moves displaying their love for Moe’s queso.

The 132 submissions were viewed more than 630,000 times. Barash says she’s seen increased traffic on all of Moe’s social media platforms, but especially with video.

“We’ve also put quite a bit of effort behind it,” she says, “but I think you see more people watching TV on the Web and using Hulu and YouTube and all these different sites to watch television. So watching video content from a company isn’t as big of a stretch.”

The most-viewed videos on Which Wich’s YouTube channel have nothing to do with contests. Instead, Tim Schroder, vice president of marketing at the Dallas-based sandwich chain, has worked with his team to put together videos that are funny and a bit irreverent, while still building on the brand’s interactive style.

Video topics run the gamut, from a Larry King–style interview with a Which Wich–loving rabbit to demonstrations on transforming paper Which Wich bags into origami flowers and even neckwear.

“Our goal is to produce videos that help create an interactive and engaging experience for our guests outside of our restaurants, such as the origami videos that we have produced,” Schroder says. “Additionally, we use videos to help further tell the Which Wich brand story.”

Schroder says that engaging customers “beyond just our four walls” is a primary goal of Which Wich’s marketing strategy, and videos are one way to provide “relevant and sometimes irrelevant, yet engaging, content to keep them interacting with our brand for as long as we can.”

Ruth Sherman, author of Get Them To See It Your Way, Right Away and an executive speech and media coach and strategic communications consultant, says video is a “unique and compelling way to connect with customers” that cannot be achieved in writing.

She says many of the commercials produced by large chains don’t have the same impact as online-video marketing because they’re too polished and target a different type of outcome.

“There is a big trend right now in social media and in customer relationships in general called ‘tear down the walls,’” she says. “Tear down the walls to your business, to you, to your life.”

Travis, whose presentation style is casual and punctuated by jokes, and who often drum-rolls on his desk before announcing the week’s trivia winners, says he shoots the videos himself in his office.

Which Wich’s videos run the gamut, from a Larry King–style interview with a rabbit to demonstrations on transforming paper Which Wich bags into origami flowers.

“I don’t do retakes, I don’t try to say, ‘Oh, I fumbled a word,’” he says. “It’s a good snapshot of exactly what I was doing for those three minutes.” He reports that even people who haven’t played the trivia game for a particular week will often watch the video anyway, looping back later to tell Travis that they enjoyed the humor.

“When you add a lot of personality to it, I think people appreciate that level of interaction with you on a video standpoint,” he says.

Because most of the videos on Moe’s website are contributed by customers, Barash says the overall campaign has had a decidedly fun, dynamic feel to it. “People really love the humor side of the brand,” Barash says. “Moe’s is great for user-generated content, because we are just that kind of brand that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously, and that’s sort of core to who the brand is.”

She says that by allowing customers to be creative and expressive, other users get more enjoyment out of watching the videos and the Moe’s community atmosphere is enhanced.

“People want to have a connection,” Sherman says. “They want to be let in a little bit behind the scenes. Video is a way for a franchisee or an owner or operator to take a store that customers have seen in other locations and really make it unique.” She says that one goal of video marketing should be to “make people want to come through that door because they feel they already know you.”

Schroder considers video one component in a wider digital strategy, and his team ties them all together to increase the brand’s impact. “Social media channels and e-marketing offer the ability to share video content and expand the reach of your messages, and if you are lucky, create a viral trail,” he says. “We always cross-promote our videos when posting them on YouTube.”

He says Which Wich leverages outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and a blog to promote its videos. While there hasn’t been a particular video headlining a marketing campaign yet, he says he still feels “the impressions and brand awareness generated will return dividends in the future.”

Panchero’s also leverages online video as part of a multifaceted social media campaign. “We use the video as an avenue to push our social media and create content,” Travis says. “It ties into our Twitter, our Facebook, our blog, and our YouTube account. It touches upon every social media outlet that we have, and we just make sure that once a week, at least, all of them are getting new content through this channel.”

Sherman says it’s time more businesses bring video into the mix. “If you’re already doing Facebook and Twitter and you’re not doing video, it’s time to bring video into that,” she says, adding that it’s all part of digital integration. For operators worried their video won’t look professional enough, Sherman says the content is more important than the quality.

“Don’t get too hung up on production values. In fact, don’t get hung up on them at all, because you’re not going to have them,” she says. She encourages owners to invest in a simple but good-quality HD pocket camera, “something they can literally just whip out any time, push the red button, and point and shoot.”

Moe’s first contest allowed contestants to submit videos that were up to one minute long, but this year it pulled that back to 30 seconds. Barash says the shorter length encourages more views. She also says that by narrowing down the contest so that all the videos are based on dancing, guests have more fun viewing competing videos.

The Twitter contest videos from Panchero’s are also relatively short, most coming in at about three minutes or less. “Be totally concise, get to the point, and try to keep videos as short as possible,” Travis says. “People don’t want to dedicate more than two or three minutes to watch something online.”

He says many companies try to pack too much into their videos, but that they should narrow down each video’s focus ahead of time and then “put a lot of personality into it.”

“People’s attention spans are pretty short, and you should grab them in the first 10 seconds,” Sherman says. She suggests starting out with a series of videos that are 30–45 seconds long and gradually working your way up.

“At the beginning, you want to grab their attention, give them something specific that they need, and then be done,” she says, adding that videos can be lengthened once a committed following is developed.

Sherman also warns that companies hesitant to embrace video marketing will likely be left behind. “It’s a runaway train,” she says, “and if they don’t jump on soon, they’re going to miss it. Because if they’re not going to do it, I guarantee their competitor will.”q

Marketing & Promotions, Story, Moe's Southwest Grill, Pancheros Mexican Grill, Which Wich