Marketing and networking: How the smartest brands use social media

For as long as brands have existed, they have tried to communicate with customers in interesting and endearing ways. The entire purpose of a marketing department is to entice potential customers into becoming new customers and new customers into becoming regular customers. The need for ad-makers and marketing gurus is obvious: Despite the old adage, it is not guaranteed that, if you build it, they will come. After you build it, you need to go out and promote it.

In the past several years, marketing and customer relations have undergone something of a renaissance. Thanks to the Internet, and in particular social media, companies have been able to reach and target specific audiences with unprecedented ease. Audience analytics tools allow companies to customize their message for specific demographic groups. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow brands to establish quirky voices that customers associate with positive traits like openness, flexibility, and trendiness. By integrating their sales pitches into current events, companies are both more likely to appear in front of customers and more likely to impress them when they do. The connectivity that social media offers has been just as revolutionary for brands as it has been for their customers.

The path forward has been a rocky one. Many of America’s biggest brands have made high-profile missteps online, from JP Morgan’s #AskJPM Q&A fiasco to the torrent of awkward and sometimes offensive 9/11 remembrance tweets. That BuzzFeed could build a 19-item list of companies’ “huge social media fails” and still leave some incidents off the list is telling. Using social media to sell products is not easy. There is an inherent tension between casual, spontaneous nature of social networking and the cold, financial reality of a sales pitch. Few companies have successfully used social media to bridge this divide.

It is these adverse conditions facing brands on social media that make the success stories so fascinating. The Daily Dot examined two of the more noteworthy examples: Denny’s, the restaurant chain that can relate seemingly any cultural event to its menu, and Travelocity, the travel booking service that has turned a once-tacky garden fixture into a mascot with impressive digital game. The portrait of effective social media engagement that follows is the result of interviews with key marketing personnel and a review of each brand’s online activities.

Denny’s and Travelocity have built well-received social media presences that blend their core businesses with a fast-paced, quirky, and often unpredictable stream of online conversation. This is how they did it.

Scrambling expectations: How Denny’s makes quirk work online

“Hardboiled detectives might solve more crimes than hardboiled eggs but the latter is way more delicious.” On June 30, 2014, someone wrote that on Twitter. It wasn’t a comedian, nor was it a best-selling author with a craving for breakfast. It was, in fact, a restaurant chain with over 1,600 stores in over a dozen countries.

Soon after Denny’s, the 61-year-old restaurant company, tweeted this message, it received responses ranging from “I love this account” to “#dennysmademyday.” One person responded that he was “so glad” his friend had convinced him to follow the @DennysDiner account.

Denny’s has become famous for its hilarious interactions with customers on Twitter and Tumblr. More so than with most other brands, the Denny’s social media presence seems to have a mind of its own. Online, Denny’s is funny, excitable, and focused on the pursuit of the perfect breakfast.

So it was a little surprising to learn that the tweets and Tumblr posts that have become so familiar to Denny’s customers don’t actually come from the company’s logo-stamped office tower in downtown Spartanburg, S.C.

Instead, the man directing Denny’s social media activities is Kevin Purcer, Senior Vice President and Director of Digital Strategy at the ad agency Erwin Penland. Purcer’s team at Erwin Penland took over social and digital operations for Denny’s in 2013. The original genius behind the Denny’s social media accounts was Amber Gordon, who launched the Denny’s Tumblr page while working for the advertising agency Gotham, Inc., and is now a creative strategist at Tumblr.

“We have tried to celebrate the idea of being America’s diner and celebrating the notion of ‘To each their own,’” Purcer told The Daily Dot. “We’re a restaurant where anybody is welcome to come in and chat and have a good time.”

Purcer’s goal, he said, is to have Denny’s social channels start conversations around “timely and topical content.”

“We do a lot of evaluation of what’s going on, what’s trending, what’s happening with the news, what’s happening with live events and bringing those conversations into our social content maybe a little bit more than they had been doing in the past,” Purcer said.

Purcer’s team includes a community manager, a “strategy person,” and a small group of creative marketing specialists who meet every morning to review the previous day’s content and plan upcoming social campaigns and event tie-ins. The Denny’s social media office, Purcer said, is “a little bit like a newsroom.” Employees monitor emerging online trends and shape their engagement with customers around them.

On both Twitter and Tumblr, Denny’s is almost unparalleled in its level of engagement.

Denny’s has mastered the hashtag game, launching conversations with customers about food-themed topics that simultaneously hook into the news of the week.

The Erwin Penland team adeptly inserts Denny’s into all sorts of news and pop culture discussions, from the shruggie to the World Cup and from the weirdest news stories (see here for reference) to the “turn down for what?” craze. It seldom misses an opportunity to relate the latest trending topic to its core mission of breakfast evangelism.

Everything Denny’s says on social media relates to its image as “America’s diner,” but it’s the tone the restaurant takes that makes itamusing to read. Its intimate, disjointed, and even sarcastic tweets, along with the occasional extended musing on Tumblr, give it the image of a child obsessed with the wonders of breakfast.

And then there is the creative imagery. Some of this can be found on Twitter, but Denny’s is particularly well-known for it among Tumblr users. On its Tumblr page, it has shared a GIF of a “Blade of Bacon,” the cover for a fake romance novel called “A Skillet to Grease,” and mocked-up product images of pancakes in a can (“now available in your imaginary grocer’s freezer”) and a “Denny Land” board game.

Denny’s described its board game as “a wild, out-of-this-world-and-out-of-regular-sanity adventure,” a description that could apply to the entire social media experience that Erwin Penland has crafted.

All customer engagement aligns with what Purcer called the “North Star” of the Denny’s brand: its public persona as “America’s diner.” “What that means is ingrained into the entire team,” Purcer said. “We have an editorial guideline sheet that says what our brand is and what our brand isn’t, what we talk about and what we don’t talk about, how we talk. “

Although Denny’s is just as irreverent on Twitter as it is on Tumblr, Purcer said that each platform has its own benefits — and its own challenges.

“There are nuances that I think not everybody realizes about the platforms and about the audiences on the platforms, and the specific behaviors,” Purcer said. “We do look at each platform differently.”

Whereas a large portion of the content on the Denny’s Tumblr consists of replies to messages that customers leave in the page’s “Ask” box, the Twitter account often takes advantage of trending items.

Two of Denny’s most popular tweets were about news events, one with mainstream appeal and one targeted at a geeky subset of its customer base.

On May 28, Apple bought Beats Electronics, maker of the iconic Beats by Dre headphones. Hours after news of the deal broke, Denny’s tweeted an announcement of its own.

As of today, the tweet has been retweeted more than 2,600 times and favorited more than 2,300 times. Mashable’s Todd Wasserman called the tweet “the latest in a long line of social media wins for the diner chain.”

On July 16, Denny’s tweeted a joke about Dash Con and its fateful ball pit, which did even better, garnering more than 6,500 retweets and more than 6,700 favorites. But it was on Tumblr where this content really shined. The Denny’s Tumblr post with the same “Den Con” joke likewise blew up.

“That was a way more niche audience thing,” Purcer said,  “but on Tumblr it performed really, really well because it was for a different audience.”

Erwin Penland runs the social media platforms of several corporate clients, all with their own unique demands. One of their clients is Verizon. Purcer said that, although Verizon’s channels call for a more restrained form of customer engagement, his team has learned a lot from running Verizon’s channels that informs their work for Denny’s.

The agency launched an Instagram channel for Verizon, but they quickly discovered that Instagram users are picky about which feeds they want to see. It means something different to follow someone on Instagram than it does to follow them on Twitter.

“It’s a very protective feed for people,” Purcer said, “so if you don’t have really awesome content, you might as well not put a ton of effort into it.”

That experience with Verizon, Purcer said, is helping his team “explore how we’re going to activate [Instagram] for Denny’s, which we’re just starting to really do now.”

“We don’t have the same flexibility managing some of Verizon’s channels that we do on Denny’s. But at the same time, we’ve learned a lot from our dealings with Verizon that have helped us on Denny’s.”

In addition to Instagram, Purcer also cited Snapchat, Reddit, and video game broadcasting service Twitch as potential future destinations for Denny’s content. But, he said, both Denny’s and Erwin Penland want the engagement to be “purposeful.”

“We’ve always got our eyes open, looking toward the future,” he said, “but we want to be really deliberate when we do make a move onto a platform that it’s purposeful and that we’re going to give it the resources it needs to be supported in a real way.”

Letting the Gnome roam: The social media story of Travelocity

To transform from faceless corporate entities into fun and relatable online presences, businesses try to put their best foot forward. Often, this means building up a symbol of the brand. Examples abound in the cereal industry, where the jungle cat Tony the Tiger and the distinguished sailor Cap’n Crunch implore children to buy their products with characteristic zest and now-famous catch phrases. Tigers and sailors are all well and good, but what is truly impressive is how one of the best brands on social media built its reputation for success on the dramatic rise to stardom of a humble lawn ornament.

At Travelocity, where Director of Brand Marketing Brett Steiger oversees a team of seven people, the undisputed centerpiece of their social media presence is the famous Roaming Gnome. The public face of the travel booking company since his debut in a series of commercials in 2004, the Gnome represents what Steiger called “an embodiment of the wonders of travel.” Travelocity has given the Gnome plenty of room to shine: It has a dedicated social media team (four out of the seven people on Steiger’s team) and separate social media presences that allow it to engage differently from the main corporate pages.

While Travelocity’s main account mostly posts photos of destinations, shares travel blogs’ lists of cool places to visit, and responds to customer feedback, the Gnome’s Twitter is a different world entirely. He responds to tweets from other brands, discusses couples massages, and travels to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. “We really view the Gnome as a celebrity,” said Steiger. “He is the beneficiary of all that Travelocity has to offer. The way we treat him a lot on social, and the way he comes to life, is he loves to travel–as all of our consumers do as well.”

Steiger explained that Travelocity closely guards the Gnome’s public persona. Employees on Travelocity’s internal social media team, along with the team at Travelocity’s outside agency McKinney, are expected to adhere to the Gnome’s “personality guidelines.”

“The Gnome is quirky. He’s fun and he loves to travel. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously,” Steiger said. “We try to make sure that in his conversations with consumers, that he comes across very much that way.”

Travelocity takes care to ensure that the Gnome only comments on current events where it would be appropriate for his character. Social media team members are instructed to “stay away from anything super-controversial,” he said.

“The Gnome is not interested in getting involved in deep political conversation or what’s going in the midterm elections,” Steiger explained. “Although those things are important, I think the Gnome is much more concentrated on where he’s going to travel next and how he can help consumers get to where they want to go.”

Two shark-themed examples highlight the differences between the Gnome’s free-form thoughts and the Travelocity brand’s pre-planned campaigns. In early August, to tie into Shark Week, Travelocity launched a website, HowFarAmIfromSharksRightNow.com, that geolocates the user and lists the distance between them and the nearest shark. Steiger described the thinking behind the website as, “Hey, we know Shark Week’s a big deal. We want to have some fun with it and we want to tell consumers how far they are away from sharks, and tie into how they could either get closer or further away, depending on what type or trip they were going to take.”

Contrast that planning-heavy initiative with what the company had done just a few weeks prior. On July 30, Steiger’s team saw the attention that Sharknado 2 was getting on Twitter. So they had the Gnome join the conversation, tweeting things that were funny, insightful, and outright snarky.

The Gnome’s one true passion may be traveling the world, but cultural events are where he appears to feel most at home. The Gnome takes an interest in award shows like the Grammys, the Country Music Awards, and the Emmys, and he has engaged with fans during sporting events like the NCAA Final Four. Publicizing these viewing habits in funny ways helps Travelocity build his overall personality. “He wants to bring those to life the best he can with consumers,” Steiger said.”

Keith Nowak, Travelocity’s Director of Communications, said, “You can almost picture him watching the CMAs but probably not listening to NPR. It’s just who he is.”

The Gnome’s status as a human-like personification of the Travelocity brand gives the company an opportunity to go beyond the traditional online image of a monolithic brand.

“The travel industry–especially the online travel industry–it’s tough to differentiate from one brand to another,” Nowak said. “The Roaming Gnome having a personality of his own, being his own celebrity and having a social media presence, really allows Travelocity to have that personality that is a differentiator against other brands.”

The Gnome has a face. He makes jokes. He also really likes to talk to Travelocity customers. He enjoys the attention that comes from his status as one of the earliest viral brand personifications.

“The key thing with the Roaming Gnome and to really maintain that conversation is, you have to reach a broad audience, but you also have to have that one-on-one connection,” said Steiger. “Whether they have 500 followers or five followers, if they’re interested and they have something interesting to say to you, to us, it’s very important to engage them back.”

Steiger cites the company’s #IWannaGo campaign as an example of the Gnome’s enduring popularity. The campaign asked Travelocity customers where they wanted to go, and over 100,000 people responded. One of those people, a woman with a special fondness for the Gnome, said she wanted to go to the Louvre in Paris and included a picture she had drawn of the Gnome.

For a company like Travelocity, this kind of engagement with a fictional envoy of their brand is gold. “We wanted to return the favor,” Steiger says. So Travelocity created its own picture, credited to the Gnome. It was a picture within a picture: The woman’s image hanging in the Louvre. Travelocity then sent a physical copy of the picture to the woman.

“I know for sure that we now have a loyal consumer who cares not just about the Travelocity brand, but that connection that she had with the Gnome himself,” Steiger said.

Travelocity views the Gnome’s social media presence as a way to promote the activity at the heart of its business: vacations to exotic and exciting places.

“The Gnome himself is a traveler and we realize how people that are travelers, how they share, it’s a very similar thing,” Nowak said. “They tweet, they take pictures, they post. Really it’s sort of mirroring how real people who travel use social media in a lot of ways.”

But, Nowak added, “Maybe [there’s] a little extra Gnome quirk about it.”

The clearly defined personality that the Roaming Gnome brings to Travelocity’s social media efforts clearly pays off. It also highlights the twin goals that any company must coordinate on sites like Twitter and Facebook: both reaching a lot of people and giving many of them a direct connection to brand. Being retweeted by an influential customer is great, but it’s the critical mass of stories about quirky moments between corporation and consumer that add up to a positive image.

“Obviously we want to increase our followers, we want to engage our consumers, and eventually we want them to be loyal to our brand,” Steiger said. “But the key thing is, sometimes you need to engage with people not because they have the most followers, but because they’re interested in who you are.”

Lessons in branding

Kevin Purcer, Brett Steiger, and their teams at Denny’s and Travelocity have learned lessons that others have not. They have spent years successfully differentiating between situations that are ripe for engagement and situations that deserve a wide berth. This alone has saved them endless grief from their customers and their bosses.

These two companies have also learned from the metrics available to them what kinds of posts do the best with specific audiences. “Where the Gnome is, it’s where we feel, at least at this point, his engagement, his conversation, will be best taken,” said Steiger. “On Twitter, which has become very image-friendly… the Gnome really shines around when he can show through visual imagery or vines where he’s been and show his experiences.”

Knowing what to say is just as important as knowing when to speak. More than anything else, companies want to somehow show that they care. The best way to do that on social media is to start conversations with individual customers. “What social media does,” said Steiger, “is it creates that two-way communication. Not only can we converse with our consumers, not talk at them, but we can listen to them as well: hear about what they care about, listen to what they’re interested in, where they want to go.”

Even a strong performance on social media won’t be universally successful. Denny’s and Travelocity have succeeded in part because they understand that, in Purcer’s words, “consumers are fickle and they want to stay entertained. Keeping their attention for a long time is a really difficult task.”

“I think the hardest thing about it is constantly staying on your game and recognizing that you’re not always gonna be batting 1000,” Purcer said. “Not every piece of content you create or every interaction’s gonna be a home run, and maintaining that voice over a period of time is really hard to do.”

One of the central challenges facing corporate social media teams is that the need to stay relevant while maintaining a consistent voice carries the potential for serious screw-ups. The fact that even Denny’s wildly successful team finds “keeping the momentum going” to be challenging is a testament to how precarious the high-wire act of corporate spontaneity can be.

“It’s not a TV spot or an ad campaign that you air and you get the pats on the back because you had the one commercial,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and commitment to keep that going.”

Photo via Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed 

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.