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Chains with most 'active' Facebook fans

Top restaurant chains say engagement is more important than numbers

Most foodservice chains trail giants like Starbucks in terms of their number of Facebook fans, but several brands are proving themselves adept at engaging members of that group who are likely to drive business, according to new research from software firm Expion.

Expion compiled for Nation’s Restaurant News a ranking of 312 major foodservice companies based on the brands’ numbers of “active” Facebook fans — users who interact with restaurants by posting on the brands’ Facebook wall or commenting on text, videos or pictures the chains post to their corporate pages.

Topping the list of restaurant chains with the highest percent of active fans are Denny’s, White Castle, Panera Bread, Arby’s and Burger King.

Raleigh, N.C.-based Expion is a social-media management software company. It works within the restaurant industry and disclosed that it holds a corporate-wide contract with Applebee’s.

While foodservice’s biggest social-media player, Starbucks, boasts more than 21.3 million Facebook “likes” and nearly 31,800 active fans, according to Expion, that active-fan percentage rounds up only to 0.1 percent, which just cracks the top 25 rankings.

The top 10 chains with highest percentage of active fans
Base = Expion’s full Top 50 rankings based on number of active fans

1. YO! Sushi (6.4%)
2. Papa Murphy’s Pizza (2.4%)
3. Denny’s (2.0%)
4. O’Charley’s (2.0%)
5. A&W (1.8%)
6. White Castle Burgers (1.7%)
7. Panera Bread (1.7%)
8. Arby’s (1.7%)
9. Burger King (1.6%)
10. The Melting Pot (1.3%)

Executives at several restaurant chains say cultivating a core of actively engaged Facebook fans rather than carrying passive users who “like” their brands once and never interact increases their return on marketing investment. Active fans are more likely to follow new products and promotions and tend to share news of brands they follow with their friends, operators say.

Top 10 chains with highest percentage of active fans over a set threshold
Base = Expion’s Top 25 rankings based on number of active fans above set threshold

1. Denny’s (2.0%)
2. White Castle (1.7%)
3. Panera Bread (1.7%)
4. Arby’s (1.7%)
5. Burger King (1.6%)
6. Jack in the Box (1.2%)
7. Hardee’s (1.2%)
8. Applebee’s (1.2%)
9. Wendy’s (1.1%)
10. Rita’s Italian Ice (0.9%)

Executive Insights:

Denny’s, which scored the No. 1 spot in terms of active-fan engagement in Expion’s rankings with 2 percent of all its fans counting as active, has focused on developing and sharing content to turn passive Facebook fans into guests who interact with the brand, said John Dillon, vice president of marketing.

“Once a consumer becomes a fan on our Facebook page, our work just starts,” Dillon said. “It’s all about delivering value-added dialogue, content and offers.”

The brand’s landing page on Facebook is a promotional tab for its Baconalia promotion, and on the wall, Denny’s solicits interactions from fans by asking questions like, “What’s your favorite time to eat at Denny’s?”

Applebee’s also posts questions using Facebook’s new polling application. Scott Gulbransen, Applebee’s director of social media and digital content, said Facebook’s big social-media advantage is its sheer size.

“When you look at 140 million Americans on Facebook and more than 600 million worldwide, you fish where the fish are,” he said. “And for Americans, Facebook has become habitual.”

Applebee’s engagement strategy involves a competition element called the “Top Neighbor Contest,” where Applebee’s fans can get gift cards by referring friends to brand page and getting more of them to “like” the chain. Once that fan acquisition is achieved, Applebee’s focuses on being responsive, even if it means Gulbransen is handling complaints on a Saturday night.

Mike McNeil, vice president of marketing for Hooters said the key to the chain’s social-media strategy is “not beating customers over the head” with constant deals and promotions.

“Other chains spend a lot of money on front-page Facebook ads, where they say, ‘Like us and get something free,’” he said. “What you end up with is people who want free food but may never come back and engage in a social kind of dialog. We think growing it organically with people who genuinely want to be engaged is more effective.”

Hooters achieves much of its social interaction by encouraging its employees — the company’s 17,000 “Hooters girls” whom McNeil describes as “local celebrities” — to network with their hundreds of personal Facebook friends and have them check out the corporate page or follow their activities at work.

“Our international swimsuit pageant has an online element called the Viewers Choice Award, where people vote for their favorite Hooters Girl contestant,” McNeil said. “That got 400,000 ‘likes’ last year, all with no advertising, discounting or couponing attached to it.”

Occasionally, however, Hooters does attach an in-restaurant promotion or deal to its Facebook initiatives, McNeil said. April 22 was “National Happy Hour Day” at Hooters, and the 50-cent wings and $5 margaritas on special were advertised solely through Facebook. The chain achieved flat sales compared with a year earlier even though the promotion happened on Good Friday, and the $5 margaritas accounted for 40 percent of alcohol sales that day.

Jamie Richardson, vice president of corporate relations for White Castle, said the 90-year-old chain tries to approach customer relationship management on Facebook the same way it does in its restaurants.

“We have a whole team of people readily engaged in our social-media efforts,” Richardson said. “Whoever sees a good question first on our page is empowered to answer it. We’re still family-owned and communicate quickly among ourselves, so that allows us to be pretty nimble. We’re focused on being transparent.”

The chain discarded that transparency once for an April Fool’s Day joke, announcing on Facebook that it would change its square Slyder patties to round burgers, which got fans commenting up a storm, Richardson said. But for the most part, White Castle strives for an “80-20” balance of content on its Facebook page, where only 20 percent of posts come from the brand and the rest comes from customers sharing their experiences.

“We found that by providing a canvas to our fans with the Facebook page, they paint better pictures than we could,” he said. “When we take reservations on Valentine’s Day, the amount of posts that come in from people who attend and take pictures are incredibly rich and vibrant.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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