Thursday, November 18, 2010

Another leap

A fiftysomething friend confessed yesterday that social media is where he’s watched the rocket pull away. My acquaintance has spent decades in the restaurant industry. But web capabilities are advancing faster than his ability to grasp the implications for the business. “It’s just happening too fast,” he lamented.

Mercifully, he didn’t know the trade was taking another quantum leap while we were munching our fiber-rich breakfasts.

You likely missed it, too, though a significant portion of the consuming public probably is probably aware by now of McDonald’s social-media scavenger hunt, the event it’s staging to introduce a seasonal caramel-mocha coffee. Clues to the whereabouts of 27 oversized McCafe coffee cups—three in each of nine U.S. markets—are delivered to Twitter followers of the brand. The first ones to find the cups win the contests.

A promotion built on social media is still rare in the restaurant business. One taking the form of a scavenger hunt is decidedly novel. But what makes the program revolutionary is the structure on which it’s based.

The restaurant industry is by its nature a local phenomenon. Brands may be national, but consumers interact with branches in their area. They deal with neighborhood businesses.

The chain sector has had a hard time addressing that reality in its use of social media. The chains typically entrust tweets about a brand to a corporate staffer in headquarters, often thousands of miles from some units. How does that tweeter foster a relationship between a far-removed unit and its local customers?

The obvious solution is letting the units do the tweeting. But the possibilities have been too daunting for all but a few foodservice companies. How do you keep thousands of voices singing the same song? And what about franchisees who might have different ideas about products, services or promotions? How do you make sure they’ll even tweet anything?

McDonald’s broke new ground with the scavenger hunt by letting the nine participating regions tweet individually, each with its own Twitter ID. Their messages are tailored to the region.

It’s the bold move that few chains have been willing to take—a national program executed on a regional, almost local basis. It’s the chain equivalent of letting a teenaged son take the car on a Friday night for the first time.

Barring disaster, the move will no doubt convince other systems that they can take the risk. Eventually that risk will be re-evaluated, and a major, more effective use of social media will become part of the marketing mix.

If so, I’ll need to break it to my friend gently. I may have to use sock puppets.

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