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Food Porn Campaign Gives Applebee's a Social Lift

User-generated content was also a win for McDonald’s Arabia

User-generated content has already been embraced by social and mobile marketers as a go-to means for producing creative that’s fast and free. Now, exclusive data from Applebee’s latest Instagram campaign reveals that this strategy also is beginning to pay off.

#Fantographer fans

In July, the restaurant chain rolled out its Fantographer campaign, which encourages diners to snap pics of their meals or of themselves chowing down on sizzling sirloins. Applebee’s is culling these food porn photos and placing the best ones on its Instagram feed. Since the campaign’s launch, Applebee’s has gained 4,500 new followers, up 32 percent to 19,750; engagement rose 25 percent.

“People continue to prove that they’re more into the stuff they create versus the stuff we create,” said Shannon Scott, executive director of marketing communications at Applebee’s.

Roughly 770 images have been collected, 70 of which have already been used. If all goes as planned, Applebee’s won’t need to create any Instagram photos of its own until next summer.

To help the program scale, Applebee’s cross-promotes the images with posts and ads on Facebook and Twitter. So far, tweets tagged with #Fantographer have appeared in 78 million users' timelines. It’s also asking users to submit pics of particular appetizers and meals for upcoming promotions.

As appealing as this strategy seems, user-generated content also has its drawbacks. Some marketers worry it dilutes a brand’s reputation since the photos are low quality and sometimes draw negative comments. Applebee’s doesn’t have any data on brand sentiment collected from Instagram, but Scott refuted that there’s any negative backlash based on anecdotal feedback.

Applebee’s is hardly the first to employ consumer content. James Kirkham, Leo Burnett’s global head of social and mobile marketing, singled out McDonald’s Arabia: Instead of sharing photos of burgers and fries, its current campaign has consumers uploading artistic shots of the chain’s iconic golden arches. "They have this strange, Western culture devotion and love for the brand, which might differ from what you get in other territories," Kirkham said.

One key for these efforts to succeed is to already have a solid group of fans churning out continuous content that they trust, according to Greg Moss, executive director of strategic services at Resource/Ammirati.

And, with more consumers relying on smartphones to look up and rate restaurants, Lee Maicon, chief strategy officer at 360i, likened Applebee’s campaign to a picture version of Yelp—the Instagram pictures become a type of visual restaurant review. But he questioned if the initiative can gain traction with a big chain. "People are passionate about their neighborhood restaurants,” he said. “Are they as passionate about Applebee’s as they are about the restaurants that they post pictures of on Yelp?"

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