The number of people liking and sharing Facebook posts from restaurants saw explosive growth in the third quarter — a result of brands focusing on engagement rather than gaining fans, a new study found.
According to Raleigh, N.C.-based Expion, a social-media software and consulting firm, the total number of Facebook likes, comments and shares for the restaurant chains with the 100 highest like counts more than doubled from Expion’s second-quarter study to the third quarter. That total of all “fan actions” rose 146.5 percent to more than 27.2 million likes, comments and shares.
Mike Heffring, chief strategy officer for Expion, said the data indicate a second phase of social media, in which restaurants are learning how to create engaging Facebook posts at a rapid rate.
“Brands are building engagement rather than focusing on building big fan bases,” Heffring said. “In other words, fan bases are reaching a level of diminishing return because a lot of brands have the big fan bases they were hoping to acquire, so now they are developing content that engages their fans to boost their share of voice.”
In a list of the 10 most effective restaurants on Facebook, industry giants Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway were among the brands earning the most likes, comments and shares per each Facebook post in the third quarter. But so did relatively smaller brands with far fewer Facebook likes, such as Chick-fil-A, The Cheesecake Factory, Texas Roadhouse and Krispy Kreme.
When Expion ranked the brands by their average fan actions per post and then indexed them by the industrywide average of 3,280 fan actions per post, results were normalized for system size and fan count. As a result, Starbucks, which has more than 17,600 units worldwide and more than 32 million likes, topped Expion’s list with 13.37 indexed actions per post while Chick-fil-A finished second, with 10.5 indexed actions per post, despite having 1,600 units and nearly 6.4 million likes.
Taco Bell ranked No. 3 on Expion’s list, with 7.74 indexed actions per post, followed by The Cheesecake Factory with 5.71 and McDonald’s with 4.56 indexed actions per post. Texas Roadhouse and Krispy Kreme tied for the No. 6 ranking, with 3.4 indexed fan actions per post, though Texas Roadhouse had a slightly higher average fan action total and achieved that number with the fewest posts of any brand in the top 10.
Red Lobster, Baskin-Robbins and Subway finished Nos. 8, 9 and 10, respectively, with indexed fan actions per post of 3.12, 3.02 and 2.44, respectively.
Chick-fil-A: The upside of damage control
Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A performed better in the third-quarter study than it had in prior reports from Expion due to the way it managed the controversy that sprang from chief operating officer Dan Cathy’s July 16 comments to the Baptist Press defending the company’s contributions to groups that advocate against same-sex marriage. As a negative reaction from same-sex marriage supporters built on Facebook and Twitter, and as Chick-fil-A supporters pushed against that backlash through their Facebook comments and a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day event, the brand did not participate in the debate beyond its July 19 Facebook post.
That post, which said the brand would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” received nearly 312,000 fan actions, including nearly 243,000 likes. It had the second most fan actions overall, behind only a post from Starbucks to promote its Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Chick-fil-A also had the No. 5 and No. 10 posts in terms of most fan actions, each receiving more than 100,000. Those posts also addressed the controversy. “The brand is using the page to host corporate-focused conversations rather than just a medium to promote products,” Heffring said. “This is a strategy that seems to be working well for them, at least when it comes to generating a large share of voice and a high number of engaging posts.”
The chain’s engagement statistics benefited from responses to the controversy even after Chick-fil-A let it drop. An Aug. 6 post was meant to be an innocuous photo promoting the brand’s catering operation, but the uncaptioned photo of the brand’snuggets got nearly 75,000 comments as detractors and supporters continued the argument over same-sex marriage.
Cheesecake Factory and Krispy Kreme: Productive promotions
Many other brands encouraged Facebook conversations through photos of their food, particularly The Cheesecake Factory and Krispy Kreme.
The Cheesecake Factory had several posts around its Cheesecake Days promotion and featured their desserts that were co-branded with treat suppliers like Oreo and Hershey. That allowed the 158-unit chain to leverage the fan bases of other well-known foods, Heffring noted, because Cheesecake tagged the other brands’ Facebook pages in those posts, making them visible to other fans.
“Their Cheesecake Days with an ‘Any Slice, Half Price’ deal featured visuals of different flavors that are tied to well-known treats such as Oreos, Butterfingers and Snickers,” he said. “Cross-promotion on Facebook can be really successful and something that we’re surprised we don’t see more of.”
Simplicity succeeded for 700-plus-unit Krispy Kreme, as a posted picture of a doughnut with the one-word caption, “Hungry?” earned more than 46,000 fan actions, including more than 44,000 comments.
“The second strategy we saw is that Krispy Kreme tied their product to social and routine activities,” Heffring said. “The effect was reminding fans that doughnuts could fit into their everyday lives, including birthdays, road trips, weekends and office parties.”
Texas Roadhouse: Direct correlation to engagement
Louisville, Ky.-based Texas Roadhouse was neither subtle nor shy about wanting its Facebook fans to share the brand’s content, and the strategy paid off, Heffring said. Though 380-unit Texas Roadhouse only posted 24 times during the third quarter, its posts efficiently prompted an average 11,156 fan actions per post, or an indexed count of 3.4, off of a base of only 1.6 million likes.
“Of all the brands reviewed, they are the most aggressive in using the words ‘share’ or ‘like’ in the copy of the posts,” Heffring said. “Almost all their top posts were encouraging people to share or like the post, with a heavy focus on shares.”
Texas Roadhouse did not stick to just one theme, though it often succeeded by playing to customers’ emotions, Heffring said, noting that the brand’s two most engaging posts asked users to support the military or to remember those lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Other posts during the quarter varied to special offers like free bread or peanuts, pro and college football, or special promotional days like Wild West Wednesdays.
The brand also encouraged fans to share photos of them eating at Texas Roadhouse and had several of those people uploading Instagram photos of themselves at the restaurants.