CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Congratulations, you have a million friends. But what's it getting you? Marketers have worked hard to make friends online, but the benefits have been elusive at best. The real juice is word-of-mouth referrals from trusted sources, but you can't tap into that with a sledgehammer.
Red Robin, a casual-dining chain that focuses on premium burgers with outlandish toppings and sweet, frothy drinks, recently asked its customer-satisfaction vendor to help drive social-media buzz. Empathica, which handles surveys for Red Robin among other brands, had recently developed GoRecommend, an application that asks consumers if they'd like to post a recommendation on their Facebook page when they seem to have had a particularly pleasant experience.
In short, it's addressing a challenge many brands are trying to tackle in social media: how to turn passive fans into real brand ambassadors.
"We don't go the fan route, we go the recommendation route," Andrew Datars, VP-product management at Empathica said. "People can become your fans, but the challenge with that approach is it doesn't leverage the social graph. Just because one of the people is a fan of your brand, it doesn't get to their friends, or people who aren't fans of your brand."
Empathica asks Red Robin customers to fill out an online survey at the bottom of their restaurant receipt. In return for possible cash prizes, they answer questions about their experience, and finally, if they would recommend the chain to someone else. Those people are invited to recommend Red Robin to their Facebook profile page. Their friends aren't notified of the wall post unless they've requested notifications on all wall posts. And Red Robin may also use the comments on their own fan page.
Mr. Datars said about 20% of those asked will go ahead and make the Facebook recommendation for their profile page. "We're able to make it rewarding, easy and fun," he said. Besides, he added, "People are interested in updating their status and profile."
Recommenders have an average of 150 friends, who all get positive impressions of the brand, at least in theory. Red Robin chief marketing officer Susan Lintonsmith estimates that her chain has gotten about 1,500 recommendations since Empathica launched the service in April. That would mean about 225,000 positive impressions during that time. The Red Robin fan page, meanwhile, has about 1,900 fans.
"The GoRecommend application offers the ability to connect with our guests while also keeping Red Robin at the forefront of consumers' minds," she said.
Mr. Datars said that there haven't been any cases of recommenders going rogue so far. Since June, GoRecommend has created about 3,000 profile page recommendations for different clients, or about 450,000 impressions. The function doesn't allow his team to scrub user recommendations that have posted to someone's profile page, which, he said, is part of the magic.
"What we do is place the brand logo on wall posts and we include a short sentence, 'So and so recommends this Red Robin, the street, city and state,' and then the verbatim recommendation," he said. "It looks very natural, it doesn't look like marketing copy, but very sincere." For example, Mr. Datars said, one consumer recommending another of his clients wrote simply "Eat out, Bitches!"
"It's not something we could put on the fan page of the brand," Mr. Datars acknowledged. "But it's still very positive recommendation, very sincere and very direct. We are trying to find those brand advocates and make it easy and rewarding to be promoters, to get out and advocate for the brand."
Red Robin isn't the only casual dining chain trying to attract attendion on Facebook. Competitor T.G.I. Friday's has amassed almost 1 million fans through a recent campaign built around a fictional character named Woody and the always popular offer of a free burger.