Pictures used to be worth a thousand words, but now that they can be taken with camera phones and shared virally across multiple social media platforms, restaurants are finding they can be worth even more.
Taco Bell, Arby’s and Qdoba Mexican Grill are among the growing number of brands adding photo sharing to their arsenals of promotion strategies. By encouraging fans to make like Ansel Adams and share their photos via the likes of Instagram, Pinterest, Pongr or Flickr, operators are heightening fan engagement and reaping the benefits of word-of-mouth on steroids.
“We’re continuing to look at how our fans use and share digital photography and ways we can encourage and reward them for sharing their images of the brand,” said Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch.
Taco Bell is particularly bullish about the photo-editing and -sharing app Instagram, Poetsch noted.
“The types of images that received the most response were simple photos that most people shoot with a camera phone and run through a digital filter — not slickly produced photo shoots,” he said.
Such photos are easy to come by nowadays. According to “Mobile Fact Pack 2012” from Advertising Age, 83 percent of smartphone users and 62 percent of all mobile-phone users took a picture with their phones during a monthlong study. Of those, 21 percent of smartphone users and 16 percent of mobile users snapped a picture of a product.
And those percentages are likely to grow as smartphones become ubiquitous. By the second quarter of 2012, the number of smartphone subscribers reached 126 million people, quickly approaching the audience of personal-computer users, which numbered 218 million.
To capitalize on the growing number of phone photographers, Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell hired a “Pintern” in July to scour Instagram, Flickr and other sites for photos featuring the brand and aggregate them on the company’s Pinterest page. The 5,600-unit quick-service chain’s latest TV commercial also uses dozens of still photos resembling the touched-up and filtered photos common on Instagram.
Flash of brilliance
Customers of 34-unit Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza have shared hundreds of food- and decor-focused photos on Instagram, said chief marketing officer Nick Castaldo, adding that Anthony’s is happy to let them spread that visual branding.
“The visual platform was a great fit for us,” Castaldo said. “One of the reasons why we’re active in Instagram is because the personal engagement aspect of it is part of our brand.”
Anthony’s, a casual-dining chain based in Pompano Beach, Fla., dove into Instagram in earnest last May, celebrating its 10th anniversary by recreating and posting an iconic shot of founder Anthony Bruno in front of the first coal oven at the first location. The brand has gained nearly 500 followers and shared nearly 150 photos so far. It asks customers to tag Instagram photos with a special “#Antstagram” hashtag.
Anthony’s has set up an Instagram contest to reward favorite shared photos, be they of pizza ovens, pizzas or craft-beer labels. But the $25 gift cards that contestants can win are far from “extravagant,” Castaldo said, meaning participants are likely to be very engaged fans, not passive users just looking for a freebie.
“Even though it’s easy to do, [photo sharing] does show a level of interest and commitment to the brand,” he said. “Those are the people that are the core base of the business, and this way of communicating is them raving about us.”
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As of press time, Toppers Pizza was rolling out a similar promotion to its 42 stores to solicit Instagram photos from fans and have them vote for their favorite pictures on the brand’s Facebook page. Like Anthony’s, the Whitewater, Wis.-based chain was offering gift cards as the weekly prize for the best photo, but people did not need much incentive to participate, said vice president of marketing Scott Iversen.
“We’ve seen it, too — that our fans are using Instagram and already posting these photos to our Facebook page, so let’s encourage that by giving them a direction,” Iversen said. “It’s one of the trending social media apps that is popular right now with our target audience, so it’s a natural fit for us.”
Food shots not necessary
Pictures of menu items are not restaurants’ only opportunity in social media photo sharing. Consumers don’t often photograph restaurant packaging, yet Atlanta-based Arby’s encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to participate in its Snap and Rock contest by photographing its soft-drink cups.
According to Pongr, the photo-sharing platform that ran the contest, the 3,500-unit quick- service chain received more than 515,000 entries between July 30 and Aug. 27 for Snap and Rock, which offered users free food and music downloads, as well as the chance to win a VIP concert experience from musicians Taio Cruz, Trace Adkins or The All-American Rejects. Fans were asked to take a photo of one of those three artists on an Arby’s soft-drink cup and e-mail or text it to a special address.
Another chain starting to put marketing dollars behind Instagram and Pinterest is Wheat Ridge, Colo.-based Qdoba, which began exploring photo sharing about nine months ago after noticing how popular food photography was on those platforms, said Lauren Preston, nontraditional-marketing and public relations manager.
But while the 600-plus-unit fast-casual chain started an Instagram profile for photos of its food and decor, Qdoba’s first Instagram-driven contest, Show Us What You Love, asked only for people to upload photos of themselves with what they loved, even if they were cats and cars instead of nachos and burritos. The submission judged to be Qdoba’s favorite each week of the contest earned the photographer a week’s worth of free entrées.
“That whole genre of photography is popular, and we were looking for a way we could express our passion for food, cooking and flavor,” Preston said. “It made sense for us to then have our guests share their passions visually from Instagram, which is all user- generated content. It was a nice synergy for us.”
Part of Qdoba’s contest also included an application in which users could type any word of something they love to produce a grid of all the Instagram photos linked to that word with a hashtag. During the four weeks of the promotion, Qdoba recorded 1 million site visits and more than 400,000 searches on that application, Preston said.
Numbers like that would help determine any return on investment, she said.
“We’re looking at social metrics — how many ‘shares’ and stories on Facebook the promotion produced — to see if it resonated,” she said. “We definitely see a lot of implications for using Instagram in the future, but we’re trying to figure out exactly what they will be.”
Castaldo of Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza agreed that photo-sharing sites are not likely to fade in the future.
“This is one vehicle I see as being a core piece of our social media architecture because I think younger people, particularly, are so much more visual in the ways they think and communicate,” Castaldo said. “So I think between the medium itself and its ease of use, Instagram is going to be a core part of our social platforms.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of the #Antstagram hash tag.