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May 26, 2011

Create Social Media Policies or Trust the Community Manager?

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As the voice of your company and brand ambassador, how objective should a community manager be, and how carefully crafted must the messages on behalf of your company be across social networks? Is social media objectivity an oxymoron?

These are the questions that were discussed after Susan ran across this Applebee’s Twitter thread between Applebee’s and an unhappy customer (click the image to enlarge):

Applebee's Twitter Response

Our initial reaction was, “Way to go Applebee’s!” Quickly followed by, “Wow, that’s a bold stance – I wonder if these are the convictions of the social media manager or the company as a whole?”

We were actually quite interested in Applebee’s approach to their community. Perusing through its social media communities, I saw many level-headed and even humorous responses concocted by the social media staff.

For example, there’s this one:

Applebee's Twitter Response 2

And this:

Applebee's Facebook

Applebee’s seems to know just the right thing to say, when to say it and takes a stance – unapologetically – when necessary.

I figured the best way to get to the bottom of Applebee’s social media tactics was to go to the source itself. I tracked down the director of social media and digital marketing over at Applebee’s, Scott Gulbransen, and asked him a few questions.

Turns out, Applebee’s does have some policies in place, but says integration of social media is still new for the company and they’re taking it on as it comes for the most part.

Jessica: Do you have a social media policy at Applebee’s or do you allow your community managers to deal with situations as they see fit?

Scott: We do have some policies that guide our employees when engaging with social media. But because the focus on social media and social business are relatively new for Applebee’s, it’s evolving and we have a ways to go.

Right now, our social media team consists of two of us here at the corporate headquarters. We’re in the process of getting more folks in cross-functional roles trained to respond and participate appropriately in social channels with our guests and employees out the in field.

We’re early in the journey but making great progress. Most of the time, we’re going with what seems appropriate when it comes to responses.

How do you decide what negative comments are worth a response?

Being the largest casual dining chain in the world, you can imagine we have great comments and also people who have had a sub par experience. When we encounter guests who have had a negative interaction or meal in our restaurant, we’ll usually respond and engage them to learn more and see how we can help.

Sometimes people are venting about wait times or other things that seem pretty innocuous. But when we want to learn more on how to improve their experience, or reach out to them because they did have a less than stellar visit, that’s when we respond.

At the same time, when people Tweet at us or post on our Facebook page comments or content that is pushing the limits, we don’t mind calling them on it.

Our robust online community of fans and guests expects us to keep it clean just as they do in the restaurant.

Is there an approval process for interactions that might be more controversial?

Not normally. Leadership at Applebee’s knows our strategy and what we’re doing to engage and ignite discussion with our guests.

We’re apolitical and stay away from issues that are going to divide folks but we won’t shy away from engaging with people who are using our name for inappropriate jokes or making light of serious situations.

Social media might be a great way to express your freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean we want to have our community exposed to it with our blessing.

Do you ever find that putting the brand’s voice into someone’s hands is a risk?

My view is it’s no different than having any of your employee’s carrying out their day-to- day duties.

We have and amazing culinary staff here. Any of them could leave at any time, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have them speak to the world about our food and what we’re doing in the kitchen.

With social media, our goal is to scale on the enterprise level so social becomes a part of the entire business – not just communications and marketing.

For social to fully transform an organization, it has to be adopted by everyone – from HR to supply chain and on down the line.

We find many of Applebee’s interactions are humorous, friendly and level-headed – how did that brand image come to be for your social media strategy?

Applebee’s is about making real connections, at the neighborhood level, every day. We want to always talk to our guests and those that interact with us in social just as they were sitting next to us in the restaurant.

We can’t pay off neighborhood as our brand promise if we talk like a stuffy corporation. We want to be real, authentic and transparent.

Sometimes we’ll make jokes, and sometimes we’ll make pointed remarks. The reason I think we’ve been so successful since I got here just over 10 months ago is we’re interacting with you just like your neighbor would.

Sometimes you talk to your more level-headed older neighbor, and sometimes you talk to that crazy neighbor across the street who wears loud pants and an ugly shirt.

We’re trying to bring the diversity you find in neighborhoods around America to the social space and on our social properties.

Knowing Your Brand, Knowing Your Community

Applebee’s approach to its social media is an understanding of the brand and its community, and then delivering on that through messaging from its social media staff who “get” those important factors. So yes, you can trust the community manager, granted you have a trusted community manager who understands the big picture.

Similar to Applebee’s, Susan and I pretty much have free reign to handle situations as they come, based on our best judgment in our social media communities. Bruce hired us for the job and trusts that we understand the brand, its people and will make the right decisions about messaging on a daily basis (mwuahahahaha).

But lucky for us, we don’t have much backlash to deal with. Our friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter are for the most part amicable — almost all the time. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing just how lucky we are, actually.

But, when you’re looking at large corporations – especially those in the service industry such as Applebee’s — that span the world with tens of thousands of employees who interact with hundreds of thousands of customers, speaking on behalf of all those people and customer experiences, as a community manager, is no easy task I would imagine.

Queen's Commerce Class of 2008 group photo 15

And in an age where social media actually encourages corporations to step outside the safety zone and speak their voice, one wonders how to marry today’s communications channels with the prudence of yesterday’s public relations tactics.

But in social media, it’s all about being real with the people in your community, while at the same time staying true to your brand. And this can be done with the same tact you would use in face-to-face communications.

A vibrant and “real” community offline is made up of all different types of people. I think Scott put it best when he said, “Sometimes you talk to your more level-headed older neighbor, sometimes you talk to that crazy neighbor across the street who wears loud pants and an ugly shirt.”

Knowing how to communicate with your social media audience while at the same time exuding confidence in what your brand stands for is one great recipe for social media success.

Thanks to Scott at Applebee’s for a great interview on zero notice.

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7 responses to “Create Social Media Policies or Trust the Community Manager?”

  1. Jey Pandian writes:

    Well written story Jessica. Thanks for sharing this excellent story about Applebee and effective use of Twitter.

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thanks, Jey! Not only do I dig how they handle their social response, I was pleasantly surprised at how responsive and willing Scott at Applebee’s was to interview without any notice. Practicing what they preach. Thank you for taking the time to join in.

  3. Jey Pandian writes:

    Not a problem, although I suspect that BCI’s brand equity had a hand in helping nail that interview.

    I’m hoping one day, one of you will write Bruce’s autobiography. I’d love to read it and I’m sure that others like me have wondered how he got his start in SEO and how he created the powerhouse brand that BCI is today.

    Future post beg :)

  4. Jessica Lee writes:

    Great idea. I’m putting it down in my list!

  5. Jessica writes:

    Applebees is a great example of effective online reputation management. They take a stand when they need to and let other comments fall to the side. Glad to see a brand that lives up to what it says it stands for.

    Great post Jessica! Thanks!

  6. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thank you for your comment, Jessica :)

  7. daniel writes:

    Now a days all the big social media legends are changing his privacy policy and putting more privacy to secure the users and his data also. So if we are doing social media activity we need o go through with policy and guidelines.



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