If your brand's social media strategy includes only Twitter and Facebook, you're falling behind. Newer sites, such as Pinterest and Instagram, are growing rapidly and consumers are pushing the accelerator.
Instagram, for example, has grown from 5 million users to more than 30 million since its launch in October 2010. More than 1 billion photos have already been uploaded on the site. The mobile-centric, photo sharing platform has generated so much interest, Facebook dropped $1 billion for its acquisition in April.
What's the appeal? According to Brian Zuercher, founder of social media photo aggregation company VenueSeen, people are visual, so consumers are naturally gravitating toward the image-based platform. Simply put, he says, Instagram provides a way for a brand to share its story through a series of photos, and for customers to directly connect with a brand.
"Text is simply not engaging, and that's why Facebook went to Timeline, to add more imagery. A photo has four times as much influence as a comment because it's visual; it sticks in people's minds," he said. "Brands are using this to tell their real story through photographs in which consumers are the curators."
Instagram, he adds, has hit a critical mass of users. Sixty-percent of restaurant photos uploaded to the site are of food or drink, and restaurants are increasingly using those images as part of their digital marketing strategies.
Brands that are catching on
A handful of food and beverage companies signed onto the site early, including Starbucks, Ben & Jerry's, Red Bull, Whole Foods Market and Dunkin' Donuts. And plenty more have caught on in the past few months.
Dunkin' Donuts now has more than 12,500 followers on the site. Scott Hudler, vice president of Global Consumer Engagement for parent company Dunkin' Brands, said the company added a presence after realizing fans were already sharing product photos through Instagram.
"Dunkin' Donuts has a fan-centric approach to all of the social media sites and our presence on Instagram is a result of our fans who take and share beautiful photos capturing their daily ritual of stopping into Dunkin' Donuts," he said.
The company also uses the site as an opportunity to show fans behind-the-scenes shots of corporate offices and unique events, such as a recent digital billboard unveiling in New York City's Times Square.
"It allows us to show our fun, irreverent personality through great photos and provides us with a unique opportunity to engage with our busy, on-the-go guests," Hudler said.
Also, earlier this month, Church's Chicken launched an Instagram account and asked its Facebook fans for a follow. Church's profile message is: "Everything's better when it's on this tray," encouraging guests to upload food shots specifically.
Bonnie Warschauer, vice president of Communications at Church's Chicken, said the account was created because it's another way to engage with customers.
"This platform provides us with an opportunity to be more creative and showcase our products and team members in a different and more interesting way. The expression – a picture is worth a thousand words ... well, in general, all you need is a picture to get a conversation going. Moreover, it's a fast, free and fun way for our customers to upload and share their photos with Church's. We're just getting started," she said.
Arby's added an Instagram component to its recent "Gourmazing" promotion, alongside more established social networks Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Fans that tagged the brand on the photo sharing site earned points toward a variety of prizes, including a $10,000 grand prize.
Subway promoted the Red Dress cause for women's heart disease awareness in February with an Instagram campaign, in addition to in-store materials and other media outlets.
Red Mango introduced its new Honey Badger flavor exclusively through its social media channels, including Instagram.
And, Caribou Coffee is using Instagram to "stand out" through its Sip Up Summer photo contest, currently running on the brand's Facebook page. The contest invites fans to submit pictures of "colorful, sun-filled moments" with their Caribou products for a chance to win summer-themed prizes.
"We recognize that a lot of our fans are using Instagram to share with friends and family and we're always looking for new ways to connect with our fans, so engaging with them via Instagram and Facebook seemed like a natural fit," a company spokesperson said. "We see Instagram as an exciting way for Caribou to engage with fans outside of their coffeehouse experience."
Site's growth, appeal continue
Instagram's growth is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. The site's Android app wasn't even launched until April, and yielded at least 1 million new users in a single day. Most recently, Instagram also upped its appeal by adding a "like" component similar to its new parent company Facebook. (This infographic shows the explosive growth of Instagram: "From zero to a billion in 17 months of exposure).
With such early popularity, Zuercher believes that adding the Instagram component will soon be a necessity for restaurant brands, just as Facebook and Twitter were a couple of years ago.
"Everybody's liked so much on Facebook, their feeds are cluttered and people are starting to scroll past everything. This has a completely different appeal. With Instagram, people can connect more with the back of the house. Images can demystify the whole experience for consumers," Zuercher said.
Plus, he adds, Instagram is actionable. Customers feel more connected (and loyal) to a brand if their photo is posted, rather than just posting a comment that could potentially get lost in hundreds of other guest comments.
"When you post what customers are posting, it elevates those customers' experience," Zuercher said. "And, food photography in particular is inspiring, interesting. This is a new advertising highway whether you like it or not."
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.