Pictures do the talking

A picture may after all really be worth a thousand words, or at least 140 characters.

For consumers in the 18- to 34-year-old age group — and increasingly for other age groups as well — social media platforms have become highly visual channels. In fact, just this spring Twitter unveiled that it will begin enabling users to circumvent its 140-character limit so they can post more photos and videos in their tweets.

The rapid growth of visually oriented platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest, along with the increasing use of video on Facebook, demonstrate that the sharing and viewing of photos and videos has become the new language of online conversation. And, no surprise, that conversation is being led by millennials.

According to comScore research, millennials spend 48 percent more time watching videos online than the average Internet user.

Commercial restaurant operators are responding with photo-centric social media campaigns, whether they are sharing user generated pictures or posting mouth-watering shots of new menu items.

“I think platforms like Instagram and Snapchat work for that because they show food so well,” says Randy Lopez, founder and chief instigator at marketing and public relations firm JaKE and a member of Synergy Consultants. “People are using it as a visual way of communicating rather than having a copy or content focus — it’s about the beauty of the product.”

Lopez says operators should look at social media “like a true media buy” in which they consider the audience of each platform and the messaging appropriate for that specific social media channel and consumer base.

“There needs to be a discussion around social media, just like we used to have with traditional media, because each medium has its own audience, its own nomenclature, and its own way to use it,” he says.

Many operators who have evaluated the various social media tools available to them have begun to look beyond Facebook to the emerging platforms being embraced by younger consumers.

SweetFrog, a frozen yogurt chain based in Richmond, Va., recently began exploring the possibility of using Snapchat as a marketing tool, says Matt Smith, chief marketing officer. The chain currently maintains an active presence on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, using each in different ways.

The chain’s Facebook pages — each location has its own, in addition to the corporate page — are geared toward the company’s “mom” customers, says Smith. These pages often feature posts centered around local community activities.

Snapchat would more likely be used to appeal to a younger audience of teens and tweens, he says.

“We need to keep in mind who the audience is for each channel, and make sure as we communicate on each of these platforms that we have the appropriate communication for the audience we are targeting,” says Smith.

For example, sweetFrog has tapped into the visual appeal of Instagram with a series of photo contests in which customers can post photos centered around specific themes, such as Father’s Day in June and family picnics in July.

The company often seeks to tie its social media messages to its core brand-- positioning around celebrations — both of everyday accomplishments and of larger events such as birthdays and graduations.

“When people tag us on social media, they are having fun with their family, or else they are talking about the product,” says Smith. “They are either celebrating with themselves and their kids and their friends, or they are taking a picture of this creation they made.”

Building a following

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat lend themselves to brief snippets of humor, and chains that capitalize on this have seen their followings grow.

Marketers that approach social media with the right tone — and the right combination of one-to-one communication and mass entertainment appeal — can prime their core audience for more sales driven pitches.

One quick service Mexican chain, for example, uses Twitter primarily for humorous commentary and retweets of its followers’ posts, who are then happy to return the favor when the chain tweets about its own new products.

Another quick service sandwich chain has tapped into its customers’ love for video games. It uses its social media feeds to share photos and videos — created using its own food products — referencing popular games. This kind of engagement easily translates into product promotion when the time is right.

Scenic venue

At Apple Farm Inn, a hotel/restaurant in scenic San Luis Obispo, Calif., visual imagery is an important aspect of its social media marketing strategy.

“We rarely post anything without some sort of visual media attached to it,” says Christen Goldie, revenue and marketing director, Apple Farm Inn. “Luckily, our property is full of great photo opportunities, and we are able to post media that is visually pleasing and encourages our guests to visit us.”

She notes that food photos — and shots of bakery items in particular — are the most popular.

Apple Farm also encourages customers to use the hashtag #applefarminn on Instagram or Twitter when they post photos of the restaurant and food. Apple Farm can then share these images — with permission — on its own social media, says Goldie.

“Guests love being able to contribute to our feeds,” she says.

Apple Farm still uses Facebook as a tool to reach local restaurant customers by posting photos, upcoming events and new menus, says Goldie, but Instagram allows the restaurant to showcase its visual appeal and encourage trial of new menu items.

The restaurant conducts most of its contests on Instagram, she says.

One example is Apple Farm’s annual holiday photo contest, in which guests are encouraged to share photos of their visits to the property during the holiday season, using a designated hashtag specific to each year. At the end of December, the Apple Farm management team selects a winner who receives a free night at the inn.

“It is great because guests are posting a lot of photos on their own feeds, which gives our property tons of exposure during the holiday season,” says Goldie. “It helps our restaurant sales during the slower times in December, and definitely gets our name out there.”

She said the number of posts last year doubled from 2013, when the contest was launched.

The rising popularity of visually oriented social media brings with it some caveats, however, says Lopez of Synergy Consultants. For one, operators need to be more conscious than ever of their food plating and overall appearance when every customer has a camera connected to the internet in their pocket or purse.

“Restaurants have always been in control of their own advertising, but with social media you really do give up control to the guests, and they can push it in whatever ways they want,” he says.

However, operators who consistently satisfy their customers have little to worry about, Lopez says.