When it comes to Facebook marketing, we all know the difference between snagging “likes” with simple freebies and discounts, and earning them through engaging, meaningful social content.

Doing the former does get “likes” to pour into your company’s page for a time — until the discount ends, leaving you with bigger numbers but not greater fan loyalty. Doing the latter gets you something far more valuable: “likes” from fans who actively endorse your brand, and who continue endorsing it, because they want to. That second type of “like” — the “like” that keeps on giving — is the one we want our social initiatives to bring in, and it takes more creativity to get.

Jersey Mike’s knows a thing or two about creativity. The sub sandwich chain ran two Facebook campaigns this past summer that not only boosted its “likes” by 30% but also increased the number of fan posts 400%.

“The number of fan stories created about Jersey Mike’s subs online during summer 2012 more than doubled. Jersey Mike’s has now extended its Facebook network of friends and their friends to more than 20.8 million,” Chief Marketing Officer Rich Hope wrote in an e-mail interview.

I interviewed Hope about how the campaigns worked, where the ideas came from and what made them appeal to Jersey Mike’s fans. The dialogue has been lightly edited for flow.

What were the two campaigns and how did they use Facebook?

The first initiative was part of a bigger Jersey Mike’s “Christmas in July” fundraiser and awareness-building campaign, which raised $218,282 for Wreaths Across America, an organization founded to continue and expand the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Our customers helped raise approximately $100,000, which Jersey Mike’s matched. In addition, we donated $1 for every “like” our fundraising efforts inspired on Facebook to raise an additional $18,282. This program ran from June 30 through July 29, 2012.

Instead of acquiring “empty likes” from fans who might “like and forget” about the Jersey Mike’s Facebook page, we were able to grow the existing fan base, as well as to drive a significant portion of them to like, comment, and share more on Timeline. At the peak of the campaign, during the week ending July 8, the “People Talking About This” stat for Jersey Mike’s had increased 900%.

The second campaign, “Throwback Summer,” took Jersey Mike’s fans on a journey through the history of the company, starting with the 1950s. Each week featured its own decade, and each Facebook post utilized iconic images and stories from both Jersey Mike’s and America’s past. This program ran from July 23 through August 31.

How did you come up with the ideas behind these campaigns?

We may be a 56-year-old company, but increasing our social footprint by providing compelling content is a major focus. … To come up with just the right ideas, we brought together our digital marketing agency GLOW Interactive, along with our internal social media and marketing teams, to brainstorm ideas that fit Jersey Mike’s brand, celebrating our Jersey Shore roots and our commitment to giving back to our local communities.

It seems like every company these days is running a social campaign, but many of them fail. Why was yours successful?

At Jersey Mike’s, we see social media as a natural extension of our ongoing grassroots interactions with our customers. Our fans are passionate about the Jersey Mike’s brand — they like to talk about their favorite number sub, what they ordered that day or share information about our latest fundraiser. These campaigns worked well because they are authentic to Jersey Mike’s and our culture and beliefs.

For instance, giving back to the community has always been a guiding principle at Jersey Mike’s. It’s a philosophy that our Founder and CEO Peter Cancro emphasizes with each and every Jersey Mike’s store owner: Support the community that supports you. Our customers expect us to be involved in important fundraising initiatives like Wreaths Across America and they want to help the cause too. This strong emotional connection sparked a lot of conversations by our fans.

The Summer Throwback campaign celebrated our roots at the Jersey Shore — surf, sand, summer. Our history goes back to the 1950s, so it made sense to explore that decade first — and every one after. While Jersey Mike’s adapts to the times, we know how important it is to stay true to our original concept, offering high quality fresh sliced/fresh grilled East Coast-style subs paired with an extraordinary customer experience. That vision is timeless.

The most important lesson is to stay true to your brand. If your program feels strained, it probably won’t work.

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