Top brands evolving social-media strategies

Software firm ranks the top 25 restaurant chains in social-media mentions

The nation’s biggest restaurant brands continue to dominate in social media as they move beyond branding and use the online tools to drive traffic at the local level, according to the latest Social Mention Index from social-marketing software firm Vitrue.

Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway took the first three spots in the top 25 rankings, which Vitrue said are based on the number of online mentions the companies garner on social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, photo-sharing sites like Flickr, check-ins on location-based services, and inclusion on blogs.

“The mentions we’re monitoring here continue to increase,” said Vitrue chief executive Reggie Bradford. “That awareness starts to drive their brand and starts to drive action. Now the question is how the biggest brands are leveraging platforms that create advocacy and point those fans to an individual store or produce a coupon from a check-in.”

Starbucks retains its No. 1 ranking in the March 2011 SMI, compared with the first such ranking Vitrue compiled for Nation’s Restaurant News in July 2009. While the coffeehouse chain trails No. 2 McDonald’s and No. 3 Subway in terms of worldwide locations, its 20.3 million “likes” on Facebook and 1.35 million Twitter followers tower over the competition.

McDonald’s, which had been No. 3 behind Subway in the 2009 SMI, surpassed the sandwich chain this year in social-media presence, even as Subway overtook McDonald’s title as world’s largest restaurant chain in terms of total worldwide units. McDonald’s has 7.6 million Facebook likes and more than 111,000 Twitter followers to Subway’s nearly 4 million Facebook likes and 44,000 Twitter followers.

Smaller yet influential chains also rank high in social mentions, the report found. Krystal, which has 386 units in 11 Southeastern states, moved up one spot to No. 4 on this year’s SMI. In-N-Out Burger, which has more than 250 locations, mostly in California, once again is No. 24 on the list.

Pizza Hut and Chick-fil-A, Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, made big leaps into the top 10, which is rounded out by KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Burger King. New entries into the top 25 SMI rankings since 2009 include Krispy Kreme, Buffalo Wild Wings, Papa John’s Pizza, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.

Bradford said the biggest change in social media since 2009 — the year Twitter gained wide adoption among restaurant companies and location-based platform Foursquare debuted — is the widespread buy-in from executives in foodservice and other industries.

“It’s moved beyond an experiment and individual campaigns to a true mainstream channel that needs some serious attention and investment,” he said. “With the pervasive growth of Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, and the time spent on them by consumers, people realize it’s more than a fad and becoming a dominant form of communication.”

While some companies in the top 25 tumbled slightly — Chipotle fell from No. 10 to No. 19 and IHOP went from No. 11 to No. 21 — Bradford stressed that “nobody’s a loser on this list.” More likely, he said, is that companies making big gains in their Social Mention Index scores like Chick-fil-A and Pizza Hut are getting proactive about connecting to their loyal followers.

“These guys are figuring out how to harness this platform and drive content and communications consistent with what their fans are looking for,” he said. “In that news feed on Facebook and Twitter, brands need to ask their followers questions, create poll questions and basically give them an opportunity to give the restaurant relevant feedback.”

Vitrue has worked with several restaurant brands like McDonald’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Chick-fil-A to create plug-ins for their Facebook pages and offers that show up in followers’ news feeds through its Wall Apps and Social Relationship Management platforms.

Bradford said the next social-media move for major brands and their software providers is to increase the chains’ local-advertising capabilities with features meant to connect Facebook and Twitter followers to the nearest individual location of a restaurant brand.

“Large restaurant brands are going to be moving in this direction of local advertising, the majority of which is driven by digital,” he said. “As Groupon drives more local commerce and Facebook gets into it with Places, the restaurant industry will embrace social media’s local-connection capability.”

Such targeting and audience segmentation could help regional chains like Krystal and In-N-Out Burger make more in-roads online and further compete with larger rivals, he added.

“Social media is the great equalizer, where you don’t need a $100 million budget to be successful,” Bradford said. “A big part of this is good word-of-mouth, managing your reputation, and going viral. When people [from outside the chain’s trade area] go to In-N-Out Burger, they take a picture and can’t wait to tell their friends. They must have great products, but I don’t know everything they’re doing on Facebook, so they must have great reputations and word-of-mouth to begin with.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]