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By Valerie Killifer, former editor, FastCasual.com
Social media market research is giving brand leaders insight into what consumers are talking about when they're hungry – and it's McDonald's and Taco Bell.
According to research from Jason Falls, founder and CEO of Social Media Explorer, McDonald's generates more conversations online than any other restaurant brand; however, most consumers on social media sites find their food to be just average.
Falls presented his findings at the recent Foodservice Social Media Universe conference in Chicago based on research conducted between August 2011 and July 2012.
In the burger category, McDonald's was the most popular brand in regard to the number of mentions, but Wendy's edged out the burger giant on Falls' brand passion index. The index is a ranking of how consumers view chains under the categories of love, like, dislike and hate. While McDonald's is positioned in the four corners of the index, Wendy's consumers have the most brand passion, strongly placing the chain in the category of 'love.' Meanwhile, Five Guys is on the cusp of 'like' and 'love.'
Falls ranked and monitored conversations in the areas of burger, coffee, chicken, fresh Mex and pizza, and offered insights into how marketing departments can use the information to foster brand awareness.
In the case of coffee, while Starbucks is the niche leader, Falls' research showed that Seattle's Best customers have a strong passion for the brand, placing it high in the category of 'love.' Seattle's Best pushed down Caribou Coffee, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks in terms of customer favorite as most social media conversations ranked Seattle's Best as a favorite choice among consumers.
In the chicken category, 34 percent of online conversations focused on the high quality of Chick-fil-A's food. Meanwhile, 26 percent of the negative comments monitored online revolved around its slow service rather than the company's stance of marriage equality, "so that's not as big of a PR nightmare as the industry thought it would be," Falls said.
On the positive side in terms of pizza, 20 percent of consumers like the taste of Papa John's pizza; however, 33 percent dislike the service, pinpointing where the brand excels and where there's also room for improvement.
"Online conversations tell us a lot of the same things that traditional conversations tell us, just in a different way," Falls said. "You can tell what [consumers] think about you, your competitor and what they want when they're hungry."
When it comes to dishing about their dining preferences, consumers will take to Twitter to talk about where they're going for lunch. They will then discuss their dining experiences on forums such as Yelp after they've eaten.
In researching and monitoring brand conversations, themes revolved around three main categories: food quality, service and health. Based on his research, Falls said people pay lip service to health, but at the base level consumers really just want good food, fast and at a reasonable price. There also is no delineation between fast food, fast casual or casual dining restaurants.
From his research, Falls shared these additional insights:
Falls encouraged conference attendees to think more in-depth about how people talk with restaurant brands – whether consumers are using Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, Facebook or Google+, among others, to provide feedback.
As is the case with Red Mango, founder and chief creative officer Dan Kim said the company uses Twitter to have "highly relevant, real-time conversations with our customers – no matter where they are."
Kim was also a keynote presenter during the FSMU conference in Chicago.
Kim said the company loves using Twitter because the Red Mango team can immediately connect to its customers and can pre-emptively address any negative customer experiences in addition to celebrating the positive ones.
"Customers feel like they are receiving individualized service and attention because they are," Kim said.
Valerie Killifer is the former editor of FastCasual.com.
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