Customer engagement matters to restaurant marketers looking to maximize their return on investment for social media, and new research from software and consulting provider Expion shows that restaurants connect with fans on Facebook best when they talk less about themselves and ask more about their guests.
Just as a simple question — “Will you marry me?” — can lead to another kind of crucial engagement, questions and solicitations for opinion provoke far more interaction on Facebook than posts about the latest menu item or promotion, Expion found.
Several marketers said they value that back-and-forth with fans as a way to extend their brand experience outside of the restaurant and ensure customer loyalty.
“In this new digital era, we have to think outside the box to interact and engage with our fans through media where they’re already active,” said a spokeswoman for Chili’s Grill & Bar. “Facebook allows us to extend our passion for making guests feel special beyond the four walls of our restaurant and engage our guests throughout their daily lives.”
Raleigh, N.C.-based Expion conducted a survey of all Facebook posts made from June through August by the 50 restaurant brands with the most Facebook “likes,” to see which posts elicited the most comments from Facebook users. By a vast majority, open-ended posts where guests were asked to answer questions or provide feedback provoked more responses than posts in which brands talked only about themselves or their products.
The 50 chains in Expion’s study made more than 3,600 posts on Facebook over the summer. The firm tracked only the number of comments each brand received to determine its rankings of “most engaged” restaurant chains. The post that earned the most comments came from Buffalo Wild Wings, which garnered 6,521 responses to the fill-in-the-blank question, “Beer is .”
The 100 most-commented-upon posts of the summer ranged from Buffalo Wild Wings’ message down to post No. 100, from Domino’s Pizza, which elicited 1,342 responses. Those top-100 posts came from 18 different brands.
Buffalo Wild Wings led all brands in that grouping with 20 of the 100 most-commented-upon posts, followed by Pizza Hut, 14 posts; Taco Bell, 13 posts; Starbucks, nine posts; and Applebee’s, eight posts.
“We use open-ended questions to become part of the conversation and to encourage our fans to communicate with us and with other fans,” said Paul Freher, director of media for the nearly 800-unit Buffalo Wild Wings. “We continually evaluate our social presence and have found beer- and food-related posts typically generate the most interaction.”
The right questions
Expion then took those 100 posts with the most total comments and divided the number of comments for each message by the number of Facebook “likes” that brand has, in order to normalize the results among chains.
Based on this comments-per-Facebook-fan ratio, Chili’s Grill & Bar had the most comments on a normalized basis, with a promotional post from June: “This is the last weekend of Margarita Madness! We’ve got two $150 party packs for lucky, random fans.”
However, such a high level of engagement with a promotion-heavy post was the exception rather than the rule, Expion found. The top-100 posts had only nine messages classified as either product focused or promotion focused. There were 37 food questions like, “My all-time favorite pizza topping is ”; 22 fill-in-the-blank questions; 15 versus questions like, “Soft tacos or crunchy tacos?”; and 11 trivia questions.
“The idea behind social media is that it’s about things that I like … so start getting people to think about their preferences,” said Mike Heffring, chief strategy officer for Expion. “Ask them if they like your chicken or your steak. Tell them … you’re listening for their suggestions on how to improve things.”
Seven brands topped the 20- most-commented posts on a normalized basis: Applebee’s with eight, Chili’s with four, Outback Steakhouse with three, Buffalo Wild Wings with two, and one post apiece for Jack in the Box, Pizza Hut and Red Lobster.
Mark Cordes, a senior manager with nearly 2,000-unit Applebee’s, said the chain’s use of fill-in-the-blank and versus questions on Facebook reflects its social-media strategy of communicating with fans while engaging them.
“We focus on having real conversations,” Cordes said. “Our Facebook page is a digital extension of the experience our guests receive in the restaurant.”
Talk isn’t so cheap
While marketers can’t easily track the link between high Facebook engagement and sales — especially when overt promotions typically don’t get Facebook fans talking — they nonetheless see a return on investment in the form of better customer relationship management.
“We are a social brand and encourage guests in our restaurants to interact with each other and our team members,” Freher of Buffalo Wild Wings said. “This engagement encourages loyalty. … We have a large fan base with a passionate interest to inform others about a new restaurant opening, new food products or beer specials.”
Cordes added that Applebee’s values engagement levels more than the sheer number of “likes” it receives as a brand, making the chain’s posting strategy and its Facebook promotional tabs, like Girls’ Night Out and Catch the Games, important.
“We measure [social media] with a variety of tools, and our results show a very strong return on investment,” he said. “We love that our Facebook community allows us to talk with our customers and listen as they tell us how we are doing.”
Expion’s restaurant-industry clients include Applebee’s, Famous Dave’s, Hurricane Grill & Wings, Brinker International, Don Pablo’s and Chevys Fresh Mex.