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Localizing the Message

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Aplebee’s has attracted scores of customers by promising them that they’ll be “eating good in the neighborhood.” It’s not surprising that its social media strategy reflects a local focus, as well. Many restaurants have their own Facebook pages — the restaurant in Hickory, N.C., for instance, has more than 1,000 fans.

That being said, management requires some level of control over each restaurant’s potential posts. “We need a corporate message, but we need to localize it as well,” says Scott Gulbransen, director of social media and digital content for the chain. “We’re in a lot of neighborhoods and it doesn’t make sense to be ‘neighborhood-like’ from a corporate location.”

Applebee’s has some 2,000 restaurants owned by 44 franchisees. That concentration of ownership distinguishes the firm from many other franchisors. “Our folks are heavily invested” in the brand, Gulbransen says, and thus have a clear incentive to ensure that it does well.

Many franchisees have been dabbling in social media for several years. By late 2009, about a dozen of franchisee Apple Gold Group’s 86 restaurants had created their own Facebook pages, “unbeknownst to us,” says Apple Gold CFO Elizabeth McGee. While it applauded the restaurants’ initiative, “it also created some trepidation for me,” McGee says. “I was concerned about who was managing” those pages.

Localization boosts engagement
Creating social media pages specific to a local audience is an emerging trend, says Peter Heffring, president of social media management software provider Expion. And, given Expion’s experience that it boosts consumer engagement by a factor of between 10 and 50, the trend is quite likely to go mainstream.

“Big brands have millions of fans, but the percent [of those who are] ‘active’ is usually 0.1 to 1 percent,” Heffring says. Companies that localize their fan pages can see engagement numbers of 30 percent – and, in some cases, 80 percent.

At the same time, the franchisor or corporate parent needs some control over the individual sites to ensure that the postings accurately portray the brand image. “Our biggest challenge is making sure we’ve got the right people speaking the right message,” says Cathi Chuck, director of marketing with The Rose Group, which operates 59 Applebee’s restaurants.

Expion provides compliance tools to help franchisors and franchisees. An approval process allows franchisors or corporate staff to manage comments or photos that a franchisee is considering posting before they appear online. The system will send e-mail alerts when photos are submitted; the reviewer can approve them immediately or schedule a review for that same day.

Expion launched in January 2010 with a focus on extending social media engagement from the brand level to the store level. “We built a system that can manage both local pages and the corporate system that sits on top” of it, Heffring says. If corporate staff develops a new menu, it can roll it out to all its restaurants and create a Facebook post that will look like it’s coming from a local store. Expion works with a number of social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, in addition to Facebook.

Expion also allows local employees to engage in a relatively efficient way, Heffring says. “We try to make it so that they can spend just 10 minutes or so a day on it.”

Franchisees need to consider social media as a long-term project, says Gulbransen, one that will require some investment of time and energy on a regular basis. For this reason, some locations may choose to delegate the responsibility to a specific employee.

Own the posts
Apple Gold Group store employees can log in for a few minutes and make a comment. “We want local managers to own the posts,” McGee says. “If we allow only our posts, it takes away the notion of a neighborhood.” Comments are posted without a formal approval process, although the corporate team will be notified if the Expion software identifies a potentially troublesome word.

The Expion software also alerts local and regional managers to potentially negative comments posted by customers by sending notices to managers’ phones or laptops. “Within five minutes, they know about it,” McGee says. Managers can respond quickly, usually by expressing their concern and asking the customer to call them to address the problem.

In at least a few cases, the same customer will re-post after they’ve spoken with a restaurant representative to say that the problem has been resolved. “Potentially thousands of people may see that,” McGee says.

Chuck receives an e-mail every four hours containing the most recent posts from the Facebook pages of all Rose Group restaurants. She can quickly scan them to see if any comments raise a red flag.

The Apple Gold Group and Rose Group also use Expion to approve photos that are going to be posted by the individual restaurants. “We’re very tight on the photo process,” Chuck says.
Both companies utilize a posting library that’s available through Expion. A restaurant manager who has created an effective post can add it to the library, making it available to other store managers.

Expion works with a number of social media platforms, but Applebee’s has chosen to focus solely on Facebook for now, Gulbransen says. “The biggest mistake brands make is to do it all at once – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook,” he says. The better approach is to “focus on one or two things, nail them and build credibility and trust.”

Measuring benefits
Getting started with Expion is fairly straightforward. The software is web-based, and the team is able to connect hundreds of locations in about a week. The company charges between $35 and $65 per store monthly, with the rate based on the number of locations.

To be sure, the hard dollar benefits of social media efforts aren’t always apparent, Gulbransen says, but “You can’t evaluate all social media efforts by return on investment. It’s not possible. It’s new and evolving and there just aren’t standard measures.”

Companies need to look at a variety of measures, including their success in building awareness of a product or service, as well as customer relationships; over time, these foster loyalty. Expion provides a number of metrics, including the percent of “active” fans — those who post or make comments.

Since January, the number of Applebee’s followers on Facebook has risen from 180,000 to more than a million. What’s more, their activity level has increased tremendously.

In addition, the company’s “first degree of connection” – the number of people who are friends of Applebee’s Facebook fans — has surpassed 130 million, Heffring says. When these fans comment on an Applebee’s site, every one of these 130 million friends could see the post.
These numbers show the importance to companies of getting their Facebook fan base engaged. “Do anything possible to incent fans to share, comment or like,” Heffring says.

Individual restaurants have seen solid benefits, as well. Apple Gold Group has used Facebook to promote some events, and “We saw significantly stronger sales at restaurants” that promote via Facebook, McGee says.

Of course, not every post is promotional. Gulbransen tries to maintain a ratio by which 80 percent of the company’s Facebook interactions with customers are non-promotional. For instance, Applebee’s asked whether customers prefer iced tea or lemonade on a hot day. The post elicited 6,000 responses in about an hour.

“Today’s consumers want to talk to the brand,” Gulbransen says, “and know they’re listening.”