Three-year-old Smashburger recently opened its 100th restaurant and a Twitter account to go with it. Each link in the growing burger chain boasts its own social media identity as part of an effort to use social networking to promote its personality in the community in which it operates, said Vice President Jeremy Morgan during Fast Casual webinar “Emerging Trends in Foodservice.” The hourlong roundtable, which also included Applebee’s Executive Director Mark Williamson and Gary Edwards of CEM-solutions provider Empathica, spent a significant amount of time on ways restaurants are incorporating social and mobile into their marketing strategies and operations.

Applebee’s and its franchisees operate about 2,000 restaurants. The company has more than 841,000 Facebook followers, and it recently launched a Girls Night Out feature to let female Facebook users plan get-togethers at an Applebee’s nearby. “Applications like that are relatively new and very exciting for the industry,” Williamson said. “To be able to help them connect with friends and also drive traffic [to the restaurants] is a very significant opportunity for us.”

The chain might have a bigger Facebook following, but in many ways, the younger Smashburger is further ahead in its use of social marketing – an advantage born of need. “We’re only 3 years old, and [in the beginning] social media was the only cost-effective way we could reach out,” Morgan said.

It’s vital for chains to support employees’ and guests’ use of social media, Morgan said, largely because they’re going to use the outlets to talk about you anyway so you might as well do all you can to ensure they’re saying good things. Most of Smashburger’s social media followers are also their biggest fans, and some of them become informal spokesmen who defend the brand when others bash it. “When issues come up, they do tend to come to our defense more than anything else,” Morgan said. “If you open the floodgates, a lot of good things can come from that.”

Both chains separate the management of their social media efforts in ways that make sense for them and take into account the scope of each effort. During the past year, as it formulated a social media strategy, Applebee’s created a team within the marketing department at corporate to manage the overall program, as well as a team of field managers to work closely with operators to manage and implement programs at the restaurant level.

Smashburger takes a different approach, with public relations agencies and field marketers helping operators and franchisees manage hyperlocal Twitter accounts, while one person at headquarters oversees the national focus on Facebook.

From social to mobile

There’s been much written about the ways restaurants are using Apple iPad and other tablets to speed the guest experience with tabletop ordering, as well as the possibility of using such gadgets to gain the equivalent of another cash register at busy quickservice and fast-casual restaurants, but there’s another trend going on behind the scenes. Increasingly, restaurant executives and field managers are using tablets and other mobile devices to access store-specific data before meeting with employees.

“From a multiunit manager’s perspective, it’s here to stay,” Williamson said. “There’s more demand, and for area directors, having access to that information in the palm of their hand is a key tool. They love pulling up to a restaurant, seeing their score card and having a conversation about it right on the spot.”

Both restaurant executives on the webinar stressed that companies are only starting to scratch the surface when it comes to social and mobile. Has your scratching led to new ways to use the technology? Tell us about it in the comments.

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