Why Denny's Sounds Like a Chill Teenager on Social Media

Find out how this restaurant chain was able to go viral with one of the most unique social-media strategy in the business.

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By Kate Taylor


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If you scroll through Denny's Twitter or Tumblr, you might think that a random breakfast-loving teenager was responsible. Why would a restaurant chain actually hire a professional ad agency to tweet this?

Or publish this Tumblr post?


However, Denny's and marketing agency Erwin Penland are indeed behind the brand's unique social-media presence. And, the sometimes bizarre social-media strategy has been amazingly successful for the brand.

Related: How a Former Denny's Waitress Amassed an Empire of Over 75 Denny's Locations

Not only does Denny's connect with thousands online (more than 203,000 followers on Twitter and 859,000 likes on Facebook), it has significantly higher customer engagement across these platforms than other brands. Since July 2013, when Erwin Penland started handling Denny's social media, the brand has increased follow and fan growth by 150 percent, with 1,800-plus average engagement per post. That brings Denny's to a total of more than 900 million social impressions and 15 million engagements in the last two years.

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Posted by Denny's on Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"It's really all been rooted in [Denny's] positioning as America's diner," says Kevin Purcer, Erwin Penland's director of digital strategy. "It's about… the little conversations that might not mean a lot at the surface level that you might have in a Denny's booth with your friends and family. But, when you look back at your life, those might be the moments you enjoy the most."

Erwin Penland began working with Denny's in 2008, and took over the brand's social advertising in the summer 2013. Since then, the chain's social-media channels have taken on the voice of a friendly, chatty customer at Denny's, eager to share random musings and talk about daily events the very minute they are happening.

"I think it's a voice… that's unique, slightly off-center, but very, very welcoming," says Denny's CMO John Dillon. "The kind of person you can literally sit down next to at a diner and have a conversation with."

Purcer says that Erwin Penland often hires people with backgrounds in film, writing or other creative fields to inject the Denny's persona with a specific voice and personality. Then, the agency brings this persona to life with a perfectly calculated mixture of planning and spontaneity.

Every morning, the team sits down to discuss upcoming events that people will be talking about that day -- from Saint Patrick's Day to the launch of a new Apple product. Certain posts that are not pegged to an unpredictable, spontaneous occurrence can be planned and scheduled ahead of time. Other posts are created on the fly by team members, who Purcer says are "always on."

Related: Denny's Just Capitalized on Apple's Tech Glitch in a Genius Marketing Move

Anytime an Internet meme gains enough momentum to be recognizable to a sizeable chunk of Denny's audience, followers can expect a timely post on Twitter or Tumblr.

Take, for example, "The Dress" -- a perplexing article of clothing that went viral, first on Tumblr and then on Twitter before taking over the entire Internet. Denny's posted content alluding to the debate on Tumblr and Twitter at 8:45 p.m. EST, just as the Internet was collectively freaking out and before most other brands created their own posts about the now infamous dress. The posts collected 75,000 notes on Tumblr and 2,100 Twitter retweets,


"Nothing can substitute [team members'] intuitive knowledge of that audience and what people will and won't respond to," says Purcer. "So, we have a lot of reliance on them as a front line, so to speak."

Purcer and Dillon say that over the last two years, the biggest change the brand has made is uncovering the unique "ecosystems" of the different social channels.

"There is a unified thread that binds them together, [but] we are slightly different in tone and in personality on each, given the users of each," says Dillon.

Facebook is Denny's the most conventional or "mainstream" social-media channel, appealing to the oldest audience. It is the most likely to highlight deals and menu offerings. Tumblr skews youngest and has the most "niche, quirky sort of content." Twitter falls somewhere in the middle -- more mainstream than Tumblr, which is sometimes indecipherable for most people over the age of 18, but still bringing a different voice to the table than the average brand on Twitter.

Denny's also has a YouTube channel, where in addition to commercials, it airs episodes of the animated breakfast food series called The Grand Slams. Episodes regularly rack up more than 100,000 views.

However, Denny's isn't currently everywhere on social media. The chain has an Instagram, but it doesn't carry the same weight as other social-media channels right now and its Pinterest account is pretty sparse. Denny's also has not yet joined Snapchat, in contrast to another social media heavyweight: the Snapchat-loving Taco Bell.

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of a brand's social-media presence is that it brings people to the restaurant. It's difficult to directly link clicks to sales for any restaurant chain. However, the company reports it is pleased with its metrics and that social media has been key in reaching millennial customers.

"I was in a Denny's yesterday, and I sat in a booth, and I could hear… a younger group in the booth next to me talking about our Tumblr page," says Dillon. "Did they come there directly… because of that? Maybe, maybe not. But there's a decent chance that that had a direct influence over it."

Related: Color War: Brands Attempt to Cash In on the Great Dress Debate via Social Media

Kate Taylor


Kate Taylor is a reporter at Business Insider. She was previously a reporter at Entrepreneur. Get in touch with tips and feedback on Twitter at @Kate_H_Taylor. 

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