Social Media Restaurants

6 Essential Social Media Strategies for Fast-Casual Restaurants

Chuck Aikens

It’s no secret that fast-casual dining is one of the hottest trends in the food industry right now. Indeed, it’s been this way for the past decade. In 2015 fast casual grew by 10.4% (compared to 5.3% for the industry as a whole) and added $3.4 billion dollars to its overall revenue. Impressive growth stats like these come a dime a dozen. No matter how you look at it, this industry has seen phenomenal growth that doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon.  

Being in Denver, we at Volume Nine feel like we have some special insight into the world of fast-casual dining. “Why is that?” you may ask. Well, there are a few reasons.  

First, Denver tends to have a ton of the two primary patrons of fast casual restaurants: millennials and affluent customers. With regard to millennials, Denver is one of the top cities in the country for young, 20-something professionals looking to make a mark. And as for the affluent, Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in the entire country when it comes to jobs, homes, population growth….you name it.

But even more important than these measures, Denver has a rich, vibrant history of fast-casual restaurants originating right here in our own backyard. Brands like Chipotle, MAD Greens, Modmarket, Noodles & Company, Quiznos, and many, many more have started right here in Colorado. On top of this, we have a population that loves to eat out; Denverites fit perfectly into the fast casual target audience, and we’re used to trying out a bunch of new fast-casual start ups. It’s little wonder that Denver officially reigns as the capital of fast-casual dining.

The Fast-Casual Social Media Opportunity

Given this unique situation, we got to thinking: what are some of the most essential and innovative social media strategies for fast-casual dining brands today? What can these companies do with  their restaurant social media marketing to separate themselves from the rest?

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And so, we’ve compiled a list of the top 6 fast-casual social media strategies below. For each, we outlined what it is, the benefits to doing it, and perhaps most importantly, an example of a local brand that we felt was doing this exceptionally well.

#1 – Facebook & Instagram Organic Posting

What is it?

Let’s start with some basics. To even begin thinking about operating in the social space, fast-casual brands must first get their Facebook & Organic postings streamlined. While these methods have been around for a while, the reality is that they still represent some of the biggest audiences and well-established ways to do make an impact on social media.

Practically speaking, this means is having a vibrant, active, and engaging strategy for delivering organic social content. Remember, these aren’t your paid channels. These are unpaid, social posts delivered to your core social communities and platforms. There is tremendous freedom in what you can post, but thought should be given to make it into a streamlined strategy.

That’s easy to say, but difficult to do very well. In most cases, brands are content to throw up some links, image posts, maybe interact with a user or two, and then call it good. But in the competitive fast-casual space, we think this is missing a huge opportunity. In today’s world, organic postings could look like any of the following:

  • Images – What are good images that show off the brand? Can this be more than just food?
  • Links – What links would the audience appreciate and be interested in?
  • GIFs Movement is usually better than static images.
  • Slideshows – Any interesting content people would appreciate?
  • Videos – Video always drives the highest engagement
  • Images – Images are still the easiest, simplest, and most straightforward way to put out quality posts.  
  • Humor – Be funny. People love humor and lightheartedness about a million times more than being sold to.
  • Trending Topics – Part of a good conversation is being relevant. What’s topically relevant for now and your audience?

The bottom line is, brands need to work to have their core Facebook & Instagram content display a healthy mix of all kinds of things.

Remember, the point of doing social isn’t just to sell yourself. The point is to leverage social as a way to tell the story of the brand. It is your opportunity to create content which boosts the differentiators of the brand and help maintain authority and credibility on your channel.

What’s the benefit?

Facebook and Instagram are still one of the best social mediums by which you can interact with new and existing customers to create brand awareness. Doing these two platforms well is a way of showing off your credibility and making an introduction to users. It is also a chance to get them excited.

If all posts your posts are generic, boring, or just not updated very regularly, you’ll look and feel like a ghost town. But by contrast, a targeted, interesting and vibrant channel opens the door for a conversation and a first interaction with users. This is one of the primary benefits to doing this right, and shouldn’t be missed in any social media strategy.

Who is doing this well?

Larkburger is doing an awesome job of keeping up with their Facebook and Instagram channels. A quick review of either will not only show a healthy dose of brand and food-related posts, but it also gives you a real sense of what they care about.

In Larkburger’s case, one thing that is obvious is just how much of an effort they make to be kid and family-friendly. Whether that means sponsoring youth sports, free kid Mondays, or just showing off kids loving their burgers, the channels have a real personality thanks to this angle of the brand. You leave feeling two things:

  1. Larkburger looks delicious.
  2. Kids will love this.

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#2 – Facebook & Instagram Advertising

What is it?

Now that we have covered the organic side of Facebook & Instagram, it’s time to talk about the paid aspect of social media advertising. The core aspects of this are quite simple and should be well known to all fast-casual brands. There are 6 primary methods ways to leverage paid advertising on Instagram & Facebook:

Organic Post Boosting – Paid advertising on these platforms sometimes means paying the social network to promote the organic content you are already generating. Whether you like it or not, getting the kind of outreach we want on social is a ‘pay-to-play atmosphere’. In order to truly maximize impact, brands must be willing to organize and launch focused paid advertising campaigns in order to boost their organic content to get in front of users.

Local Awareness Ads – The biggest opportunity for fast-casual probably lies with geo-targeted local awareness ads. In this scenario, we can specify the targeted area for specific promotions to hit customers within a certain distance of a restaurant. With this specificity in mind, it’s a fantastic opportunity to push things like coupons, claims offers*, announcements of a new opening, etc. The main purpose of these ads is to drive foot traffic and local awareness. For an industry reliant on people walking through the doors, the importance of this cannot be overstated.  

Brand Awareness Ads – Brand awareness campaigns promote general content about restaurants. For many new or aspiring fast-casual restaurants, they are a great way to promote specific pages on your site you may want to direct people to. They can also be used to promote new content. In either case, the general benefit is building credibility and keeping the brand at top of mind for users. This is as core of a paid social strategy as it gets.

Offer Claim Ads* – These ads are specifically designed to put an offer of some sort in front of users. It could be a discount, coupon, or whatever else is relevant. The point is, people love discounts. Again, we can geo-target these ads to hit a segment close to the restaurant itself.

*Quick Caveat: Regarding claims offers, you can only do this on Facebook, not Instagram. However, Instagram is still awesome for geo-targeted awareness campaigns, and all the same boosting rules apply as they would on Facebook.  

Segmented Audience Targeting – Paid ads also allow us to segment audience types. These platforms are downright creepy with the amount of information and data they have on you. This allows brands to segment by just about anything: age, gender, location, interests, income, etc. The point is, this segmentation allows you to specifically target each ad with different emotional appeals.

Retargeting – The final method of paid advertising is retargeting. Retargeting is an incredibly powerful tool. Studies show that customers who are retargeted are 70% more likely to convert on your website and can lead to a branded search increase of over 1,000%. Retargeting should be a core strategy of any paid social campaign.

What is the benefit?

We outlined many of the benefits to paid advertising above. But if we made it specific to fast-casual restaurants, the big benefits tend to boil down into three main buckets:

  • Brand Awareness – Paid ads are one of the best ways to let local customers know about your restaurant and to keep it top of mind.
  • Brand Credibility & Familiarity – There is a very, very high chance that you are going to need to hit customers multiple times on multiple channels before they will convert. Paid social and retargeting ensures you stay in front of them and helps build the brand’s credibility and familiarity .
  • Foot Traffic Local targeting and local offers help drive foot traffic. Period. People will only drive so far to get to your restaurant; therefore, it is vitally important to understand how to inspire those who are within your range.

Who is doing this well?

Boba Guys is specialty tea shop that saw incredible paid success on Facebook. Boba guys isn’t necessarily a Colorado brand (sorry), but their story is too good to pass up. In fact, Facebook went so far as to feature them as a case study of just how well this can work.

You can read the full version via the link above, but the TL;DR is that they are a local shop which had just opened a new location in San Francisco and were looking to drive foot traffic. Boba Guys leveraged local awareness ads and boosted organic posts to reach over 10,000 people in their immediate area and achieved a 9X return on ad spend.

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#3 – Recipe Videos

What is it?

Recipe videos are simple but impactful. These are short videos of interesting or yummy recipes which appear in users’ Facebook or Instagram feeds.

These videos automatically play in feeds with users having the option to click the video to turn on the sound. Alternatively, recipe videos can be captioned so that the content appears even with the sound turned off. All videos can be promoted via paid social advertising, like any other type of social content.

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Generally speaking, we’ve seen brands take one of two angles in terms of recipe-specific content. The first is to showcase a specific product or menu item. In this case, the focus of the video is usually centered around how that item is prepared, what goes into it, etc. The second angle is to give a broader behind-the-scenes look at the food or to highlight something specific which is happening that month with a particular item.

Regardless of the specific video direction, the broader point to keep in mind is that the goal of the videos isn’t necessarily to inspire others to go cook for themselves (remember, we’re promoting restaurants, not cooking). Rather, the primary purpose of the recipe video is to inspire your users to share the post with a friend, or to be inspired to come eat themselves.

What’s the benefit?

The upsides to video are huge!

To begin, it has been proven that videos shared on Instagram and Facebook outperform every other piece of content (over 135% more effective than photo posts, for example). Whether that means engagement, views, or overall reach, this piece of content does better than any other. There are a number of reasons why that is.

First, Facebook weighs video as the most valuable piece of content you can produce. Therefore, video content is much more likely to show up in users’ newsfeeds and stay there. Once it is front of potential customers, video does well because it is engaging, easy to watch, and captivating. These days you don’t even need sound. In fact, some estimates say that up to 85% of Facebook videos are watched without sound. We’ve still seen a lot of engagement from people who are in a setting where they can’t turn the volume up, but they can watch and engage just the same.

But the biggest benefit to video might be the sharing potential. People are not only more likely to watch a video than engage with other pieces of content, they are also more likely to share it. Video is a simple way to tag a friend and bring them into the brand fold. The power of this opportunity cannot be overstated.  

Who is doing this well?

Surprisingly, we’ve seen very few fast-casual brand really nail the video concept. Noodles is probably the best example. Their Facebook video page is a healthy mix of video content, with a number of very good recipe videos thrown in.

But there are not too many other great examples. Instead, we see this type of content show up quite a bit from other industry related sources such as chefs or (unsurprisingly) The Food Channel.

Perhaps the best example of this in action is BuzzFeed’s ‘Tasty’ section of their website. They were some of the first pioneers of recipe videos on social media and their feed is still rife with plenty of great examples of this sort of content.

#4 – Snapchat

What is it?

If you’re over age 30, you might not be too familiar with Snapchat yet, except knowing that it is the new ‘thing’ in social. Well, it’s time to catch up quick. Remember how we said a huge chunk of fast-casual traffic is from a younger crowd? It turns out they are the overwhelming majority on Snapchat at the moment and represent a huge opportunity.

Snapchat can be used by fast-casual brands in a few different ways:

Giveaways and Contents – We keep coming back to this, but it’s because it is important: people love free and they love to feel like they can win. Snapchat presents a big opportunity to engage with audiences by getting them to participate in your giveaways and contents. Ask them to share a story or a snap with appropriate tag and they can be automatically entered in the contest. The benefit for the brand is exposure to everyone in the Snapper’s audience.

Behind the Scenes Story Telling – Snapchat is still the most ‘innocent’ amongst social media platforms in the sense that it isn’t too overrun with advertisers or brands…yet. The result is that its users generally have an expectation of a much more organic and genuine interaction from brands.

Practically speaking, one of the best ways to engage in this way is via genuine stories and behind the scenes content about a brand on Snapchat. This is your chance to give a ‘real’ and authentic look into what the brand is and to tell your own story. Doing this in a fun, interesting, and a personable way can lead to some very powerful interaction and engagement from fans.

Geofilters for Events – Geofilters get into the paid side of Snapchat. In this scenario, brands can leverage Snapchat as part of events. How it works is that brands are able to create a specific filter for their event This encourages people to take photos and exposes the promotion to others in the snap family. Generally speaking, it is pretty cheap as well, which is always nice. (The exception to this rule is for very big events. In this case, it can get quite a bit more expensive.

What’s the benefit?

The biggest benefit to Snapchat is its potential to humanize the brand and connect with users on a much more personal level. Like we already said, this is a space where people expect genuine content. So, this is your chance to ‘be yourself’ as a brand and give it to them.

Are you funny? Be funny on Snapchat. Are you interesting? Share interesting things and people are much more likely to share your stories on Snapchat than on other platforms. Do you find that a majority of people walking through your doors are in high school or college? Well, there is no better way to connect with them than on Snapchat. That benefit alone speaks for itself.

Who is doing this well?

The undisputed restaurant king of Snapchat is Taco Bell. Taco Bell has always had a bit of quirky brand, and they have leveraged it to its full potential with Snapchat.

The best example is probably their sponsored lens campaign launched during Cinco Demayo of 2016. This single promotion led to 224 million views in a single day. Let’s say that number again: 224 MILLION VIEWS! When was the last time your social drove this kind of engagement?

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A good local example of using Snapchat is Blaze Pizza. These guys do an awesome job of genuinely engaging with their customers on Snapchat and it shows in their social feed which is rife with user pictures and stories.

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#5 – Social Media Contest for Acquiring User Generated Content

What is it?

Running a good social media contest or giveaway is one thing, but in the social space, one of the best benefits to a contest is its potential to generate user generated content. Interactive contests can encourage users to post content either relevant to the brand or the brand experience, or some sort of initiative you want to push. Here is how this plays out.

Usually, the contest starts with something the brand is offering. You need to figure out a compelling reason for people to participate. Generally speaking, users will sniff out disingenuous or shallow contest attempts, so make your prizes are worth it. Once you have the framework for the winnings locked down, now it’s time to get it going on social channels.

The way this typically works is by using #hastags to get people to jump on to the promotion. For example, you might challenge users to participate in the contest by loading a photo or a video with the appropriate hashtag. The practical side is that it allows the brand to see all entries, but the much more valuable component is the sharing and distribution which is happening amongst the participant’s social network. That’s the whole point of doing the contest, really.

Remember, the likelihood and quality of winning is a big draw for people. The contest is mostly just a hook to get people to participate, so make it worthwhile for them to do so.

What’s the benefit?

The obvious benefit is the exposure this can generate amongst the audience. When done right, it is possible to see exponential reach and exposure as people jump on to the contest and distribute amongst their channels.

Another benefit is the general interaction which a contest can drum up amongst customers. When done right, this interaction should be a very positive and uplifting experience. That kind of positive distribution and exposure is hard to quantify, but the results tend to speak for themselves. There is no more powerful form of marketing than positive word of mouth, and this is what the contest is seeking to create on social channels.  

Bonus Benefit: An especially important bonus benefit from contests is the opportunity to repurpose user-generated content created by the contest itself. For example, let’s say you run a creative photo contest and users submit their images via hashtag. Suddenly, you are sitting on a potential goldmine of creative, fun, and unique submissions. What do you do with all this?

For the savvy fast-casual brand, you take the opportunity to re-share, re-gram, or re-Tweet to your audience. With a quick acknowledgment, thank you, and share to your audience, you have suddenly created a whole new layer of interaction and engagement with your contest.

The biggest benefit to this is now you are using good content you didn’t have to do anything to create – awesome! But another benefit is that users tend to love that kind of interaction. 99 times out of 100 they will be super excited and thankful that you interacted with them. This builds loyalty and engagement in a very authentic way which is sure to be appreciated by those already participating in the contest. We already said how powerful word of mouth is, and spreading the word of your customers is a great way to do this.

Caveat #1: Of course, you don’t actually have to wait for a contest to re-purpose user generated content – it just so happens that is an especially convenient time to do so. We recommend all brands keep an eye out for customer shout-outs and shares at any given time.

Caveat #2: You do need to be a little careful with how you use user generated content. Typically the following guidelines are good to follow when you re-distribute somehting you did not create yoursefl:

  1. Always thank the person for their submission.
  2. Always give credit and acknowledgment for the submission.
  3. Never place user generated content in paid advertising unless you have express permission.

Who is doing this well?

One local brand who is pretty consistent with their social contests is Pieology Pizza. Their Instagram contest are simple, but effect. They simply ask for a follow and a tag of three friends, and then they have all kinds of cool incentives. Like a trip to Legoland!

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#6 – Social Media Table Tents

What is it?

Social Media table tents bring an off-line aspect to the social marketing. These tents are printed promotional materials which sit on the actual tables at restaurant locations. The messaging can vary, but generally speaking, their purpose is to invite users to interact with the brand’s social media channels directly from the restaurant itself.  

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What fast-casual brands put on their table tents is very important. It is never a good practice to ‘beg’ for likes or follows without a broader goal in mind. Table tents need to have a very clear call to action or a purpose associated with it.

One example of an effective use of a table tent is to push a certain promotion. A brand could offer an incentive or a free ‘something’ in exchange for a follow on Snapchat, for example. Simply do the follow and the customer can claim his or her directly item in the store. The same type of promotion could be done with an Instagram hashtag as well.

Another example is using a table tent to bring awareness to a social contest currently happening. If a brand is pushing a #hashtag contest or something similar, it’s an opportunity to introduce that to existing customers while they are already engaged.

What’s the benefit?

The goal of table tents is to cultivate engagement while they are already in the midst of an experience with the restaurant. Hopefully, it’s a good experience, so you are able to cement that by promoting social engagement. If that results in a follow of the brand online, then the tents have done their job.

Another benefit is user generated content. Like we have already seen, if we can inspire an action or a user-generated post from within the store, the tents have done their job by creating a share or an engagement opportunity which can resonate out to their entire network.  

Who is doing this well?

One brand that makes awesome use of table tents is Denver-based Pizzeria Locale. Table tents are a perfect fit for them given their unique situation.

Pizzeria Locale is a boutique brand that is seeking to grow their reach and awareness. Their specialty pizzas are adored by fans and frequent customers, and they have a lot of opportunities to push that message out to a much greater audience online.

Therefore, table tents are the perfect way to leverage their current raving fans to preach the word online. Pizza Locale’s tents are simple, but they are very effective because they take such advantage of the enthusiasm already present amongst their customer base. image00

Conclusion

Just like the fast-casual industry, the social media world is only becoming more and more saturated with brands trying to make their mark. Unfortunately, most of the time this looks like half-hearted, sloppy, and / or downright boring attempts to interact with audiences via social channels.

However, we at Volume Nine firmly believe that this opens the door for big opportunity. Using social media correctly can be a huge, huge opportunity for fast-casual brands. Because there are so many options, it’s really important to focus on what makes you different and what will draw people in. If you create everything around that, and make it your leading message, there is no reason why social can’t be wildly successful.

If you are interested in learning more, give the social media experts at Volume Nine a shout today. We’ve seen some incredible social media results ourselves using these tactics outlined above and our team would love to talk to you.