How to stand out--and what to watch out for--when using social media to promote your franchise
Few companies have embraced Twitter as avidly as Denny's. The always-open casual dining franchise based in Spartanburg, S.C., maintains two Twitter accounts: DennysGrandSlam caters to early-bird, breakfast-time diners, and DennysAllnightr targets the after-hours demographic. Both spotlight new dishes, promotional discounts and giveaways. In the fall of 2009, Denny's started touting its Twitter efforts on its restaurant menus, encouraging patrons to "Join the conversation!" at twitter.com/dennys. One problem: That account actually belongs to one Dennys Hsieh, a Taiwanese citizen with no affiliation to the Denny's organization. Talk about egg on your face.
Not all the companies populating Entrepreneur's annual Top 10 Franchise countdown have suffered such embarrassing social media gaffes. McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., recently became the first company to integrate a branded farm into the social game FarmVille, rewarding players with virtual goods. The website of McLean, Va.-based Hampton Hotels encourages hotel guests to "stay in touch between stays" via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And Subway of Milford, Conn., offers High School Heroes, a social competition that recognizes inspirational students and teachers via Facebook.
Here are some other examples of social media success strategies:
Give customers a voice. Casual dining franchise Houlihan's offers HQ, an invitation-only online network for "brand fanatics." "We ask them to do word-of-mouth campaigns: ‘In exchange for coming in and trying new menu items, will you write a positive review on Yelp?,'" says Jen Gulvik, vice president of marketing and creative director. "Make people insiders and they'll market on your behalf."
Listen. "Sometimes a consumer will walk into one of our restaurants, and the experience is not so great," says Einstein Noah Restaurant Group chief concept officer James O'Reilly. "Our fans jump onto Facebook and tell us when that happens. We follow up with that location, react quickly and make it right."
Stay ahead of the curve. Franchises like Houlihan's are testing the waters on location-based mobile social networking upstarts such as Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt. "When people are already checking in at our restaurants [via Foursquare], then we need to be on there," Gulvik says. "It might be a way to get new guests into the restaurant."
Get creative. "Social media will be whatever you want it to be as a business owner--you just have to understand it," says Eric Casaburi, founder and CEO of fitness franchise RetroFitness. "It's a medium for communication and it's a medium for advertising. It's like a Swiss army knife that does a whole lot of things." --J.A.