Shannon is Executive Director of Marketing Communications at Applebee’s International. The neighborhood grill is frequently recognized by fans and industry insiders for its approach to digital and social. Talking with Shannon you see why.
The purely user-generated content on your Instagram feed makes a ton of sense to me. How’d you get there?
When Instagram came on the scene, it seemed like the perfect place for us to showcase our restaurant experience and food. We dabbled at first and treated content for this space like any other piece of content we created and pushed out. As our guests started to engage with us in the space, we quickly realized the posts they made to our page got much more engagement than the posts we were so meticulously creating. We started to consider some of our regular posters an extension of our own team, and began giving them “missions” to ensure the subject matter they posted was in alignment with our strategic initiatives. The agency started referring to them as our “Fantographers” internally, and the name really stuck, so we decided to build a whole initiative around them. Who better to produce content relevant to our fans than the fans themselves, so rather than sprinkle their content in, it just made sense to turn the whole thing over to them. So far, it’s been a great partnership and we have significantly grown our engagement and fan base since the launch a little over a year ago.
When it comes to participation online brands seem to fear it, tolerate it or celebrate it. Why is it better to celebrate it?
Celebrating it is the only option, in my opinion. It’s important to realize that consumers are participating with brands, whether the brands want to or not. It isn’t up to the brand anymore what consumers see or don’t see, because that kimono is open. For us, we take all the input we get from our guests to heart – both the good and the bad – and consider all of it a gift. We have the benefit of unvarnished feedback from consumers on the type of experience we’re giving them, and use it as a learning opportunity and a chance to address any issues head on and can create something even better going forward.
But aren’t you scared of potential consequences? You gotta lock that stuff down!
That is always the risk, but again, to not engage or address the issues would just be burying your head in the sand. The philosophy we deploy is to always be the biggest fan of our fans, and that has helped us build some very strong relationships with our fan base. When these emotional connections are created, we find that even when people spew negativity about the brand in this public forum that is The Internet, our fans are the first ones to come to our defense, and this quickly turns negative interactions positive, often even without our intervention.
Where many brands are looking for awareness, you’re often looking for reconsideration. Where have you made progress on that front?
Applebee’s is unique in that we have 100% brand awareness, so our marketing job could be considered easier in some respects. That said, with brand awareness comes “brand baggage,” so in other ways we have to work harder to overcome any existing brand perceptions that may not be so positive. Therefore, when our challenge is to convince people who haven’t tried us in awhile to come in and try the new food, ‘trust us, you’ll love us,’ doesn’t cut it. It’s a fact that Millennials can be anti-big brand, and generally not as trusting of what us big brands have to say. That said, they are significantly more likely to try something new if endorsed by a friend. Social media has been an amazing tool for us to leverage our existing fans to be our marketing force, but not necessarily with cliché testimonials, but in new and innovative ways. We have had a ton of fun finding new ways to bring this strategy to life across all our channels.
What is your latest epiphany?
I have two, actually:
1) Facebook is the new focus group. In order to give consumers what they really want, you have to know what they want. They are telling you, but you have to listen. (…And can’t ignore them if you don’t like the answer!)
2) Building authentic relationships is the key to success in social media, and in life.