When Chick-fil-A began plotting its social media strategy in early 2008, it first checked out Facebook. Happily, though it hadn’t run a single campaign on the social network, more than 500 profiles mentioned the brand. Another surprise: The fast feeder already had a robust fan page with 25,000 fans, which was created by a particularly zealous consumer.
After getting a read on the situation, Chick-fil-A’s Michael McCathren, who holds the title conversation catalyst, contacted that fan, Brandy Bitzer. McCathren’s hope was to get her to hand over the brand destination to the rightful owners. Yet soon into the conversation, he changed his mind. It turned out Bitzer was a true brand evangelist. She lives in Connecticut, an hour away from the nearest Chick-fil-A store, but she became acquainted with its signature chicken sandwiches when the cruise company she works for stopped in Los Angeles. She visited stores again while traveling for work and became hooked. Bitzer began the page in November 2007, posting photos and profile updates, and it grew from there.
McCathren came up with a novel solution: The brand and customer would share administration of the page. Bitzer would continue its administration while Chick-fil-A would provide assets to fuel enthusiasm for the brand. Chick-fil-A brought Bitzer to its Atlanta headquarters and later invited her to speak at a corporate event.
“We wanted her to buy in,” he said, calling Bitzer “a real-life raving fan.”
With Bitzer onboard, Chick-fil-A’s digital agency ClickHere, part of The Richards Group, set about crafting a social media strategy. The brand is idiosyncratic in some ways: It’s a lot smaller than McDonald’s or KFC, and the family-owned chain is also very much tied to its Southern roots. The company’s founder, a Southern Baptist named Truett Cathy, declared Chick-fil-A stores would be closed on Sundays, a practice that continues to this day. The brand’s advertising, devised by The Richards Group, has long centered on the “Eat more chikin” tagline and the offbeat idea that cows are in favor of the brand, for obviously self-serving reasons.
The agency set out to grow its Facebook presence by leaning on its brand attributes. Chick-fil-A had the advantage of a deep well of support. The shop’s social media audit for the brand found conversations about it occurring naturally. There were already 1,500 photos tagged with the brand’s name, for instance. This meshed with an above average NetPromoter score, McCatheren noted.
“We had a lot of people offline talking about the brand,” he said. “That was our first hint that there might be an opportunity to play in the social media space as well.”
Chick-fil-A figured the best way to keep the grassroots appeal was to keep a safe distance while providing brand assets for fans. It put this to the test with its first Facebook promotion for Cow Appreciation Day, a yearly marketing push the brand runs in July that encourages customers to dress like cows. While a surprising number of people own entire cow costumes, according to McCathren, the brand also provided them with printouts to make their own makeshift cow costumes. A photo contest gave prizes to the best shots of people in cow costumes. (Nearly 400 photos were uploaded.) Chick-fil-A waded into Facebook advertising for the first time, too, buying engagement ads that included an RSVP to Cow Appreciation Day. (More than 18,000 RSVP’d.) All the activity drove uptake on the fan page and grew the brand’s Facebook following.
“One of the mistakes we’d seen is brands would gather a lot of friends but wouldn’t get people to interact with them,” said John Keehler, director of interactive strategy at ClickHere.
Chick-fil-A took another page out of the social marketing playbook by using Facebook as a listening post. McCathren notes that the company was skittish when introducing a peach shake in June, worried it might come off as too Southern for the rest of the country. To get immediate feedback, he turned to the brand’s growing Facebook presence. Those fans mostly gave the thumb’s up to the flavor.
Since then, Chick-fil-A’s Facebook page has gained momentum. The company made it a key part of its fall campaign tied to the kickoff of college football season, using it as a hub for its “Chicken Wave” push and Labor Day chicken sandwich giveaway. There’s no doubt that product giveaways helped Chick-fil-A gain popularity. The Chicken Wave offered a coupon for a free sandwich to the first 250,000 participants. Chick-fil-A also was among the first advertisers to try Facebook’s sampling ads that offer users coupons for free product trials. Chick-fil-A gave away 25,000 coupons for chicken sandwiches in five days. Along the way, it added more fans, finally crossing the million fan mark in August.
The brand hopes to replicate its success on Twitter, where it just set up shop for the first time in late summer. There it has found some early success with tactics adapted from Facebook. For instance, the account got a good response when offering coupons to people who post a picture of themselves with a cow. Now that its Facebook community has topped 1 million, the brand sees a chance to use the sample for deeper product research. McCathren said it would start to poll Facebookers on merchandising ideas, for instance.
And it hasn’t given up on the consumer input angle, either. Bitzer remains active in steering the Facebook page. Recently, for instance, she suggested Chick-fil-A make a Facebook event announcement for the opening of each new store. McCathren loved the idea and now feeds her a list of store openings to create the events.
“This is a complete departure from traditional marketing,” he said. “If you try to enter social media with a traditional marketing mind-set, you’ll never leverage it. What a brand does with its customers is just as important as what it does for its customers.”