Throughout the month of July, brands that had increased their social media engagement in June with contests or brand-specific anniversaries maintained consistent growth in those metrics, as measured by the NRN Social 200. Yet several restaurant chains showed a noticeable pop in interactivity with fans, particularly on Facebook, which resulted in double-digit weekly gains in their Social 200 scores.

Often, the spike in engagement resulted from a single post or image that connected with a restaurant’s fans because it reflected a brand’s authenticity, was a unique image or was just a very compelling offer.

The NRN Social 200 is an index that monitors and measures the social-media success of the Top 200 largest restaurant brands, based on Nation’s Restaurant News’ annual census of brand U.S. sales. NRN has partnered with social-media tracking and analysis firm TrackingSocial to create the index, which explores the engagement level and relationship between the largest restaurant brands and their social media audiences on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

White CastleFans find authentic content compelling

As photography capabilities have improved for Facebook and Twitter and the photo-sharing platform Instagram has gained traction, restaurants have grown more adept at building social-media content around striking images, usually food shots. But in July, several brands bolstered engagement with photos that were not necessarily of menu items but that customers found no less compelling.

A piece of fan art — actually, several hundred pieces — helped White Castle earn more than 14,000 likes, nearly 4,000 shares and 500 comments in one posting. The picture was of a White Castle replica constructed entirely from LEGO pieces, taken by fan Rob Bender and uploaded to Flickr. The brand’s index score rose 13.2 percent to 22.67 the third week of July.

KrystalKrystal, a similarly sized quick-service chain based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and spread throughout the Southeast, drove a 13.9-percent weekly improvement in its Social 200index score the second week of July. Like White Castle, Krystal benefited from a Facebook photo of a restaurant, but its image was a simple exterior of a location. Its caption read, “Krystal: It’s a Southern thing,” which drove engagement for brand fans, more than 1,500 of whom liked the post.

Another regional chain, Cincinnati-based LaRosa’s Pizzeria, leveraged its reputation as a staple of the local scene with ongoing programs tied to the Cincinnati Reds pro-baseball team. A no-hitter thrown by Reds pitcher Homer Bailey put LaRosa’s engagement over the top. Bailer threw his no-hitter July 2, and two separate posts of the same photo of the pitcher garnered more than 6,200 combined likes and 1,150 combined shares, increasing LaRosa’s weekly Social 200 index score by 36.7 percent.

Firehouse SubsFirehouse Subs also exemplified the power of a single piece of content to drive meaningful increases in engagement, yet its most engaging post of the month, which drove a 20.8-percent increase in its Social 200 score the first week of July to 21.06, was all text. Late on the night of June 30, Firehouse shared heartfelt condolences for the 19 firefighters who perished fighting a wildfire in Yarnell Hill, Ariz. The brand’s message for the “terrible loss” of first responders, including a signoff of “Rest easy, brothers,” carried genuine authenticity because firefighters Chris and Robin Sorenson founded Firehouse Subs and remain heavily involved in the chain.