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The Social Media Challenge: The Results

We blended a team of digital marketing experts with an old-school rib joint to see if social media can really work.
The Social Media Challenge: The Results
Image credit: Photography by John Johnston
Right on 'cue: Frank Alfonso and Bill Cossoff of Big Papa's.

For years, Big Papa's BBQ was likely Denver's best barbecue restaurant about which local barbecue fans had never heard. Their food was epic; their marketing barely a blip. Late last year, we decided to help. We pieced together a team of experts in branding and digital marketing and set out to take Big Papa's from social media zero to social media hero in 60 days.

As we outlined in our February issue, the goal of the project was simple: To give Big Papa's a marketing makeover. Co-owners Bill Cossoff and Frank Alfonso aimed to boost revenues by at least 50 percent and create a community of loyal and returning customers.

After some initial meetings, our team, led by LeeReedy/Xylem Digital of Denver, dubbed the effort "Social Sauce," and came up with four steps to maximize followers:

  • Pop-up events during which Big Papa's would give away ribs at local hot spots
  • A baby-back "throwdown" contest that would challenge area barbecue joints to the ultimate taste-test (they playfully referred to this as "Ribbin'")
  • An exclusive "Super-Secret Supper Society" that would meet regularly to eat ribs and drink beer
  • A contest to "Win Big Papa," during which Alfonso would host a catered party

We also laid down some ground rules: For the first 30 days of the challenge, LeeReedy/Xylem Digital would take the lead in advertising these promotions on Twitter and Facebook. At the halfway point, they would hand the reins to Big Papa's and play a more advisory role.

What Worked
The experiment began Nov. 15, 2010, with a targeted pop-up rib giveaway (a "rib-away," if you will) in a parking lot outside the Westword, one of Denver's alternative weeklies.

Around 11 a.m., Nick Williams, a producer and social strategist on the LeeReedy/Xylem Digital team, started tweeting to Westword staffers about free ribs in the parking lot at lunch. Word spread through the office.

By the time Alfonso showed up with a smoker full of ribs, hungry journalists (and one lucky UPS delivery man) were waiting in the 38-degree cold.

The Big Papa's crew doled out 75 free meals that day in a matter of minutes. All diners had to offer in exchange were their e-mail addresses. A database was born.

From that day, the pop-up strategy caught fire.

A midnight event on a Friday in the popular LoDo district netted dozens of additional followers and names for the list. Ditto for one outside a University of Denver hockey game near the flagship store, and another at a holiday lighting celebration the day after Thanksgiving.

"In the first two weeks of our pop-ups, the e-mail list grew by nearly 300 names--an increase of nearly 50 percent," says Jamie Reedy, strategist and copywriter for LeeReedy/Xylem Digital. "Even if only half of those people end up coming in to eat, you're still talking about a whole lot of people who wouldn't otherwise have become customers."

Toward the end of the experiment, the "Super-Secret Supper Society" ended up being a rollicking success as well.

By eavesdropping on private barbecue-related Twitter conversations and pushing it online, LeeReedy/Xylem Digital set up this exclusive event in such a way that people could only learn details if they signed up as e-mail subscribers on Facebook.

The team also pitched the soiree in stores, with hand-drawn promo boards that billed the event as an "exclusive evening of beers and bones."

LeeReedy/Xylem Digital estimates the promotion attracted hundreds of additional e-mail subscribers. From this group, in January Big Papa's selected 50 lucky winners to participate in a swanky barbecue dinner (complete with beer from New Belgium Brewing Co.) at the sit-down restaurant in Littleton.

"It was a home run," says Cossoff, noting that some diners tweeted and took pictures throughout the meal. "[It was] formal enough to be special but, not so formal that we didn't have fun."

Unfortunately, on Jan. 1, Big Papa's closed its second Littleton location. Cossoff says the decision had nothing to do with our project--if anything, he says, the business stayed open to see if social networking could keep it afloat.

What Didn't Work
Not every part of the four-legged strategy went over so well. The "Throwdown," for instance, served up mixed results.

Sure, the restaurant's growing cadre of followers embraced the opportunity to talk virtual smack and tout their beloved barbecue as the best in town. And yes, 50 people came in to Big Papa's locations for a free rib sampler and a coupon to stay for a full meal. But much of this ribbing fell largely on deaf ears; few, if any, of the boasts were answered, and the good-spirited back-and-forth that the LeeReedy/Xylem Digital gang envisioned from the get-go never materialized.

In fact, many competitors had no idea they were being ribbed.

Lessons Learned
We gained a good social media schooling from our experiment with Big Papa's BBQ. Here are some things to think about when crafting your own strategy.

Listen. It's critical to listen to conversations that pertain to your business before jumping in. In the case of Big Papa's, LeeReedy/Xylem Digital took stock of the restaurant's online presence, conducted searches to see what had been said about Big Papa's in the past and set up Google alerts to track what people said as the experiment got underway. The strategy fueled outbound messages that were pertinent, coherent and right on point.

Be authentic. Looking at statistics from individual tweets, the restaurant's most successful social media messages were from Big Papa himself, Frank Alfonso. Witticisms, recipes, you name it--if Alfonso wrote it, followers clicked through. This simple fact demonstrates that followers prefer messaging that is on point, but with personality.

Be patient. We gave our experiment 60 days and it started to pop toward the tail end. In truth, we could have given it six months. The bottom line: Building a social media presence takes time. Stick with it. Track progress. And keep messages fresh.

Jordan Kezon, a manager at Moe's Denver, said he wasn't even aware that Big Papa's had developed a social networking presence.

Mason Capps, owner and operator of Oinks, said he stumbled on some playful taunting online but wasn't entirely certain what to make of it.

"I guess they were trying to start a barbecue fight?" Capps asked when, um, grilled about the campaign. "We don't have the time to fight back; we'll let our food do the talking."

Another challenge was transitioning the advertising efforts from LeeReedy/Xylem Digital back to Big Papa's, which formally occurred on Dec. 22, when LeeReedy/Xylem Digital shut down for the holidays.

At first, the Big Papa's crew had trouble identifying who would take over day-to-day management of their new online presence; though Williams and Reedy suggested it should be the ebullient Alfonso, most of the responsibilities fell to Maureen Cossoff, Bill's wife.

Next, there were miscommunications over how Big Papa's continued the messaging itself. Instead of innovating organically and creating new messages every day, the company fell into a pattern of regurgitating some of the same tweets and posts that LeeReedy/Xylem Digital had published weeks before.

"It took some hand-holding to say, ‘Do it like this, but different,'" says Williams, who spent 30 minutes every morning counseling Big Papa's on an approach for the day. "I wouldn't describe it as a failure, but the switch-over took a lot more effort than anyone suspected it would."

What's Next
Despite some snafus, overall the Social Sauce experiment was a lip-smacking success for Big Papa's.

The social networking numbers speak for themselves:

  • Twitter followers went from 0 in Week 0 to 275 in Week 7.
  • Facebook likes went from 210 in Week 0 to 558 in Week 7.
  • E-mail subscribers jumped from 597 in Week 0 to 1,243 in Week 7.

Big Papa's peaked at an e-mail-open rate of 35 percent and a click-through rate of 14 percent. (In case you're wondering, the restaurant industry average for e-mail-open rates is 26 percent and the average for click-through rates is 3.4 percent, according to the 2010 MarketingSherpa Benchmark Guide.)

But of course the most important numbers are the ones that pertain to the bottom line. These figures suggest that social media nabbed an average of 725 new customers every week, and that those new customers helped grow the business by 22 percent over the duration of our Social Sauce experiment.

Because Big Papa's is privately owned, Cossoff and Alfonso declined to give specific week-over-week sales figures, but noted they were "delighted" by the results, considering how slow December and January usually are.

"We were able to turn one of our slowest times of year into a money-maker," Alfonso says. "As a small-business owner, you can't ask for much more than that."

As a postscript to our experiment, Big Papa's held a one-year anniversary party at its Littleton location in late January and promoted it exclusively through their social following. People showed up in droves. Scott Snyder, chief strategy officer at LeeReedy/Xylem Digital, says lines were "out the door" with a 25-minute wait, and that Alfonso and the Cossoffs were "floored."

"They're drinking the social media holy waternow," Snyder wrote in an e-mail following the event. Which means the company's social persona will only get better.

In addition to sparking and advancing customer interactions online, the company will continue the successful aspects of the Social Sauce campaign, including pop-ups and the Secret Society. Cossoff says there are hopes of hosting a "Name the Sauce" competition this spring and that Big Papa's will reach out to local food bloggers to spread the word through their respective networks.

Eventually, as profits percolate, Big Papa's may even return to two marketing strategies that faltered the first time around: direct mail and traditional print and radio ads.

"It's all about a marketing mix," Cossoff says. "What this project has taught us is that social networking must be part of that mix, and that it's not nearly as difficult to manage as we once thought."

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.

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This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Secret Sauce Part II.

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