Restaurant brands have undoubtedly upped their social media efforts in the past year or so to keep pace with digital-savvy consumers. That pace isn't expected to slow: A recent study by the National Restaurant Association found that more than 95 percent of restaurant owners said they will be on Facebook within two years.
That is, after all, where most of their consumers are. In September, Facebook announced it reached the 1 billion-user milestone.
The food and beverage industry is a major player on the network, as there are approximately 187 million consumer restaurant brand "likes." In addition to engagement, promotions and idea crowdsourcing, some restaurants have taken their Facebook presence a step further by incorporating food ordering capabilities directly from their brand page. This offers those social neworkers the chance to order a meal without ever having to leave the site on which they spend so much time.
ChowNow, NetWaiter and ONOSYS are a few examples of companies that have jumped into the Facebook/online ordering integration game. Just this week, Revention also announced its HungerRush online ordering integration with Facebook.
"Social media is an increasingly popular way for restaurants to connect with customers," said Jared Shimoff, a senior director at NetWaiter, which launched the ordering app for Facebook to provide an "easy way" for customers to place orders.
One restaurant that has added the service is Dragonfly Mandarin, which implemented the app in May 2011 through ChowNow.
"We decided to go this route for several reasons, but mainly because of cost and diversity. ChowNow offered the ability for customers to order through our website, Facebook page, and our own iPhone application, which ChowNow would develop," said Gabriel Ayala, director of Operations at Dragonfly Mandarin.
Benefits of a Facebook ordering platform
Ayala said it's still too early to gauge whether or not the service has been beneficial, but The Taco Spot, in Charleston, S.C., has experienced a 10-percent lift in digital orders since its implementation of the feature. That operation also uses ChowNow.
Not only does the Facebook ordering channel provide convenience for socially networked customers, it has also helped the restaurant fill more orders faster, according to Taco Spot owner Lindsey Collier.
"We would have lines out the door with people who wanted to order and eat in the restaurant, and those who had phoned in their order and wanted it picked up," Collier said. "Now, people who order online can walk up to the counter and pick up their food and be out the door in five seconds."
Facebook orders are paid for at the time of order, which expedites the pick up process.
Chris Webb, CEO/founder of ChowNow, said in addition to speed, another benefit of having a Facebook ordering platform is that it levels the playing field for smaller chains.
"Regardless of your size or budget, every brand's Facebook page looks the same. It helps independents and smaller chains compete with bigger, national chains. A lot of restaurants signing up for this don't even have actual websites anymore, they're just using Facebook because it's a great content management and consumer engagement tool and it's free," he said.
Ayala added that delivery and take-out business is on the rise – a growing demand from time-crunched consumers – so having this added feature offers added convenience for both operators and guests.
"Any avenue we can take to increase the delivery/take-out side of the business is considered a great return-on-investment," Ayala said. "Even if we don't attract any new customers, I think the convenience it creates is in-itself a great return. People are on Facebook all day long, so to be able to order directly from Facebook, instead of going to our website, will make it one click faster, which in our society, one click is considered precious time."
Prevalence still low, for now
Although some point to Facebook ordering's benefits, the concept is still relatively new and therefore widely untapped. A recent study by the Cornell University Center for Hospitality Research, found that the top fast casual and quick-service chains have moved forward with online ordering, however not on Facebook.
Based on the review of restaurants' ordering functionality, just under half of the fast casual restaurants accepted online ordering. Notably, pizza and sandwich chains — and just over one-fifth of QSR chains — take online orders.
"Although almost every chain is on Facebook, we found only about 3 percent allowed ordering through Facebook," said Philip F. Laqué, one of the authors of the study, along with Sheryl E. Kimes. "On the other hand, electronic ordering is not for every chain. We found virtually no online ordering possibility for fine dining restaurants."
The report outlined the advantages and challenges of electronic ordering. Advantages include the potential for increased sales, particularly through automatic upselling, while disadvantages include the possibility of overwhelming the kitchen with extra rush-time orders.
Beyond those considerations, the researchers noted the heavy preference toward electronic ordering on the part of younger restaurant customers. According to new research from Technomic, a majority of Millennials (59 percent) say they look up restaurant menus online often or very often via a computer.
Because of that growing consumer base and its increasing influence in the foodservice industry, Webb believes Facebook integration will grow rapidly as well.
"You build your online presence where your traffic is and right now, Facebook is where restaurant traffic is," Webb said. "I think if you're not offering online ordering now, you're going to start being left behind. And if you have the added convenience of Facebook ordering, you have an added advantage and the chance to gain more loyal customers. This is just the direction customers are going."
Tips for Facebook online ordering integration
Webb adds that there is still a lot more value in offline marketing compared to online marketing efforts; "it's just more personal and resonates more." However, there is good reason to pour resources into online marketing efforts if you integrate a Facebook ordering platform.
"If people are just scrolling through their news feed, it sort of goes in one ear and out the other," he said. "We recommend you train your staff to remind customers about the option, and you do a lot of promotions — in store, and on Facebook itself. Remind customers that you can order from the page. Once they get converted, you should see a ton of repeat business through the channel."
Read more about social media initiatives.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.