Upstart restaurant brands like Toppers Pizza and Lenny’s Sub Shops have to compete against industry giants like Pizza Hut and Subway for sales, and while they acknowledge that they can’t match their rivals’ size, they can punch above their weight in terms of marketing through social media.
Executives at both brands said they concentrate less on the total number of “likes” they earn on Facebook compared with much larger chains than they do at their likes per store. Though the number of restaurants in their systems do not approach the same league as the competition, often their stable of Facebook fans per unit far exceed that of their peers.
According to No Limit Media Consulting, as of July 18, Lenny’s Facebook page had 84,924 likes for its system of 147 locations, which equaled approximated 578 fans per unit, besting Subway’s 469 fans per location (nearly 15 million likes for about 32,000 locations). The closest competitor Lenny’s in terms of fans per unit was Firehouse Subs, with 570 fans per unit, derived from dividing its 282,028 likes by its 495 restaurants.
Toppers showed an even larger advantage in fans per unit over its pizza industry rivals. The brand’s 51,548 likes for a 42-unit system yielded approximately 1,228 fans per unit, far surpassing 782 fans per location for Domino’s (more than 7 million likes for 9,000 locations), 682 for Papa John’s (nearly 2.5 million likes for 3,600 locations) and 611 for Pizza Hut (nearly 8 million likes for 13,000 locations).
Both brands touted their Facebook strategies, which maximize the value of each social media fan, for helping them grow sales and units.
Extending the traditional guest relationship
Brent Alvord, president of Memphis, Tenn.-based Lenny’s, sees the greatest value in social-media fans’ ability to share their views quickly, thus proliferating the sandwich chain’s word-of-mouth at a relatively small incremental investment for Lenny’s. While the brand cannot spend as much on advertising as a rival like Subway, and only spends about $50,000 per year on social-media marketing, leveraging the latter to accentuate its customer service gives the chain greater scale in its branding.
“If you provide a fantastic experience in the restaurant and have a great rapport with customers, social media is an extension of that relationship,” Alvord said. “It brings them into a common arena where we’ll be able to continue ongoing communication with them. We also track friends of fans, and if you total all of them up, it’s more than 19 million people. Creating exposure with 19 million people is significant.”
The biggest benefit of building up a social media following and engaging those fans for Toppers Pizza is encouraging customers to adopt a highly profitable behavior for the pizza chain: online ordering.
“When people order online they have a better experience because they control the time and pace of the order, and they can do it from memory,” said Scott Iversen, the Whitewater, Wis.-based chain’s vice president of marketing. “One of the best ways to drive people to online ordering is to interact with them when they’re already online.”
To strengthen that tendency to navigate toward Toppers’ online-ordering page after a visit to the brand’s Facebook page, the chain is investing in new back-office technology that would integrate the two platforms more seamlessly. Within the next six to 12 months, Toppers hopes to have the Facebook page completely tied to the online ordering system, in which a customer could click a link to an offer on the former to pull up a pre-populated order form on the latter.
Fostering true engagement
Both Toppers and Lenny’s recognize Facebook likes as efficient tools for building up chains’ awareness with core customers and introducing themselves to those guests’ friends, so the brands allocate much of their time not only to acquiring new Facebook likes, but also to getting those users to repeatedly visit the brands’ Facebook pages.
Toppers has run several promotions in the past to get fans’ input on everything from pizza toppings to the boxes in which they are delivered, then pitting those ideas against each other in competitions to determine the next offering from the chain.
Fans get enthusiastic about entering Toppers’ Facebook promotions because they can have a pizza they created become the chain’s next limited-time offer, as happened in early 2011 with the “Spank Your Pizza” contest, or have their doodles on a pizza box become the cover photo of the chain’s Facebook page, as in the recently concluded “Box Art” contest.
When the chain rolled out its redesigned packaging recently, the final design was inspired by the doodling styles of the contest entries, Iversen said. Fans noticed the inspiration and appreciated the fact that Toppers used its Facebook page for more than promoting offers, he added.
“We engage them in a fun way rather than talk at them,” Iversen said. “Everything we do, from the pizza box art contest, to a Free Bacon Happy Hour every Thursday or Toppers Tuesdays, is to get people interested in what’s going on with us. … This plays a big part when we grow in places where Toppers is relatively unknown.”
Lenny’s deploys similar strategies of promoting offers that are only for Facebook fans and contests for user-generated ideas. For instance, the chain’s Social Wednesday promotions are pushed out only to people that have liked the brand’s Facebook page, which generated traffic on what typically had been a slow night.
"Wednesday is now one of our busiest days, especially when we do a buy-one-get-one for Social Wednesday," noted Alvord. "It’s a huge rush of traffic, but those are all good problems to have.”
And this past April, Lenny’s introduced three sandwiches — the Ultimate BBQ Melt, the Black Bean Veggie and the BuffaloPhilly — that resulted from the New Sub Contest the brand held on Facebook, which garnered more than 2,500 entries.
“As long as we follow through and roll out those sandwiches, people feel like they matter,” Alvord said. “It helps with driving sales and building loyal relationships. … Those types of things drive tangible dollars that help our franchisees make money."