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How restaurants can leverage the new Facebook Timeline

With Facebook’s recent changes to its brand pages, marketers now have more ways to leverage the thousands of “likes” they have spent the past few years acquiring, according to a new analysis from social-media software and consulting firm Expion.

The firm’s chief strategy officer, Mike Heffring, said restaurant marketers can embrace the social network’s new Timeline format and changes to the “sponsored stories” feature to scale Facebook engagement. While brands have focused on building up their Facebook likes the past few years, Heffring said, their strategic imperative on the social network ought to be for customer loyalty and retention, not customer acquisition.

“The big thing going on in the next year on Facebook will be how brands scale really compelling stories and conversations,” he said. “Think of your Facebook page as a portfolio of things you have to put out … and provide a mix of things to keep you compelling.”

Getting more engagement from Facebook fans — in the form of likes, comments, shares and click-throughs — requires restaurants to post relevant things about their brands and their food, Heffring said, but also to start conversations in which guests talk about their preferences and to share images.

The changing face of Facebook

The dominant social network will switch all brand pages to the Timeline format Friday. The page design has been available for months on Facebook users’ personal profiles and is a much more graphic-intensive style for wall posts and status updates.

Facebook began allowing advertisers to adopt Timeline for their brand pages Feb. 29.

Since then, companies marketing themselves on Facebook have been able to tell their brand stories going back to their founding, often integrating photos and videos more easily than in previous Facebook formats, Heffring said. Starbucks Coffee, for example, used its Timeline to document the brand’s founding in 1971, Howard Schultz joining the company in 1982, and the introduction of the Frappuccino in 1995.

Other changes can help brands as well, Heffring added.

“Sponsored stories,” or brand ads that appear in a user’s news feed whenever a friend likes a company or comments on a brand’s posts, are now more prominent and include lists of users’ friends who also like certain advertisers. New features also will allow brands to run targeted ads on the Facebook mobile app, send offers and deals directly to Facebook users who opt in to receive such promotions and push ads in a person’s news feed or on Facebook’s logout page.

Brands also can “pin” stories to the top of their Facebook pages, meaning that a company’s post will remain at the top of its page even if it adds other status updates, videos or poll questions at a later time.

All these changes could allow restaurants and other marketers to reach more of the Facebook users already interacting with them, without necessarily needing to grow the brand’s base of likes, Heffring said.

“In the past year, it’s been the race to get a bunch of fans and everybody trying to get to the million-like mark,” Heffring said. “You start with your most loyal fans and keep adding and adding. You’re increasing your fan base, but it isn’t necessarily the best fans beyond a certain point. … It’s like the ‘Moneyball’ theory, where maybe you don’t have the most or the best talent, but it’s about the way you optimize what you have.”

Quality, not quantity

In order to engage Facebook fans and earn their comments, likes and shares, brands need to be engaging — which means they can’t only be talking to Facebook users to sell them products, Heffring said.

“Category relevance is always the starting point, to keep people interested in what they’re buying from you,” he said. “But you can’t do hundreds of posts about just your doughnuts.”

Facebook’s change to Timeline for brand pages will only make photos and videos more useful, Heffring added. He suggested uploading food shots and pictures of restaurants’ scene during special events like St. Patrick’s Day and Mother’s Day. But there also could be opportunities in branded-entertainment videos or user-generated photos and videos that any brand could ask fans to upload, he said.

Watch Red Mango's Dan Kim talk about Timeline; story continues below

Asking for customer preferences relevant to a specific brand is an important tactic, he said, such as The Cheesecake Factory posting, “My favorite cheesecake is _____,” or Chick-fil-A asking, “If I could only eat one Chick-fil-A meal for the rest of my life, it would be _______.”

Asking personalized questions tangentially related to a brand also works, Heffring said. Expion found, in a study of all Facebook posts in the fourth quarter of 2011 by the 100 restaurant brands with the most likes, that Starbucks Coffee garnered the most likes and comments for a single post by asking the question, “Who is your favorite person to have coffee with?”

In Expion’s fourth-quarter study, the 100 most engaging Facebook posts — which earned the most likes and comments — came from 22 brands. Buffalo Wild Wings had the most in this group, with 21 posts, followed by Dunkin’ Donuts with 10 posts and Starbucks with nine of the top 100 posts.

Heffring also pointed out that the size of a chain’s fan base or how often they posted on Facebook did not necessarily correlate to the number of top posts they had in Expion’s study.

For example, Dunkin’ Donuts nearly 6 million Facebook likes were only a fraction of Starbucks’ 29 million likes in the fourth quarter, yet Dunkin’ kept pace with its larger rival, scoring 10 posts in the top 100 to Starbucks’ nine. At the time of the study, Panera Bread had fewer than 1 million Facebook likes to Subway’s 11.3 million likes, and each chain had one post in the top 100.

As for frequency, Starbucks’ nine posts in Expion’s top 100 came from only 74 total Facebook posts for the brand in the fourth quarter, while Chili’s had the most total posts during that period, with 226, while getting seven of them into Expion’s top 100. Cold Stone Creamery had one post in Expion’s top 100 — the same number for Panera, Jimmy John’s, Hooters, Subway and Cheesecake Factory — with just 17 total Facebook posts for the quarter.

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