Monday, April 4, 2011

Social studies, c. April

If you’re one of the holdouts who suspects there’s more hype than substance to social media, consider a story behind the story of the Social Media 50, our ranking of the restaurant industry’s most avid and successful users.

I collected the data with a few days of help from an intern beginning in mid-January. As we tabulated the Twitter and Facebook posts of some 120 operators—chains, independents and celebrity chefs—we noted the aberrations, thinking they’d make a good sidebar.

There were plenty of them, including a number of big brands that have yet to embrace one or both of the two major social media channels.

Similarly, there was a rough correlation between an operation’s size and the amount of buzz it generated online, but not a perfect one. Who’d have thought Buffalo Wild Wings would promote more keypad activity than some of the fast-food giants?

But perhaps the biggest surprises were the numbers for In-N-Out, the burger chain whose die-hard fans define a restaurant cult, replete with its own secret ordering language. It seemed cut out for social media, yet its voice wasn’t nearly as loud as even a casual observer might’ve expected. Twenty-thousand Facebook fans? Pffft. We even called attention to the situation in our roundup of curious findings, or what we termed Jaw Droppers.

Fast forward to a few days before the release of the report via our April issue and exclusive content on One of my colleagues sent me an e-mail with the subject line, “Rut-roh.”

She explained that some work on another project took her to In-N-Out’s Facebook page, which indicated the regional chain had more than 1 million fans. Clearly we’d made a mistake.

Still, I was puzzled. We’d checked the numbers several times. Was it possibly a mistake? Had we visited one of the unofficial pages that fans set up for a brand they adore or abhor (OliveGardenHate had more than 300 fans)? Was it just a typo, a number misread off a list and mis-entered there?

It might indeed have been a mistake of one sort or another. But in researching mini-profiles of the social media strategies wielded by the Top 50 finishers, I started noticing other discrepancies.

Numbers had soared in the few weeks since we conducted our first canvass of Twitter and Facebook. Jumps of 2,000 Twitter followers weren’t unusual. Neither were leaps of 10,000 or more “likes” on Facebook pages.

In the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, the increase was in the 600,000-fan range.

Might In-N-Out have really seen its numbers jump by nearly 2 million in a month? Consider that Charlie Sheen collected 2 million Twitter followers in a night.

I’ve yet to get a clarification one way or another from In-N-Out, a chain notoriously uncommunicative with the press.

But I’m thinking that we just saw a market rectification of sorts. The power of social media is gravitating to the more powerful of brands in some sort of online natural evolution.

Skeptics will have to change their argument. The preferred form of social media might change. But the phenomenon is growing, not waning.

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