Smashburger Builds Social Media into the Burger

By: Janet Thaeler; Open Forum

Mar 25, 2010 – More than just wanting to be “every city’s favorite burger place,” SmashBurger is out for a bigger cause. That is, to make friends in every city in which it’s located. 

SmashBurger is well-positioned and innovative and is growing despite opening in 2007, a year before the recession hit the restaurant industry. SmashBurger has grown by not doing the same thing in every market. They build innovation into their brand. After clearly defining the brand, they have reached out to engage directly with their customers at the local level. Social media is ideal for this approach.

Here’s an example: when research showed Salt Lake City loves ice cream and one of its favorite flavors is mint, the resulting menu in Salt Lake City reflected that. They let people interact and choose what’s on the menu. For Utah it’s the Beehive Burger with honey mustard and in Denver it’s the Spicy Baja (which Minneapolis requested and eventually got).

How SmashBurger Makes a Splash in New Markets

In every market they open, SmashBurger engages directly with the local evangelists and with the community. They host dinner for people who live near a new store. Anyone can enter to win to be invited (via social media). In some markets they invite local bands to perform. Then afterwards they ask people to vote for their favorite performance.

When it comes to eating out, people actually care about community. Restaurant industry stats say 57% of adults say they are likely to make a restaurant choice based on how much a restaurant supports charitable activities and the local community. Being perceived as active in the community is good business.

Eat & Tweets

Smashburger looks for people who are active locally online on sites like Twitter, blogs and Yelp. They invite them to lunch and let them order anything on the menu, ask questions and get introduced to the brand. These “eat and tweets” show instant buzz and real time feedback as people try out and talk about the digs.

Most amazingly, despite already opening 50 stores already this year, founder Tom Ryan goes to a lot of the openings. When I called to see how this approach was going, Tom spent almost an hour on the phone with me answering my questions. He walks the talk of being transparent and engaged.  If he can’t be there, someone else from senior management goes. There is a dedication to adding value on the various channels they are on. That’s why each local Twitter account is managed locally.

Looking for the Value-Add

Rather than using social media as if it’s traditional media in another platform, SmashBurger is using it as a way to interact with individuals. The basis of their communication comes from these principles:

1.    Let people know they are there.
2.    Show people what they offer.
3.    Introduce people to the ways they do things differently.

While there is a national Facebook and Twitter account, local franchisees run their own Twitter accounts. They have over 6,000 fans on Facebook and that seems to be the most active channel nationally. Each store works with a local PR firm who goes to headquarters in Denver to train and learn SmashBurger’s social media policy.

It’s not as much unique that they are involved in social media (as you see from the picture, others are integrating social media into their marketing), it’s how they include this piece from the start. It’s not an afterthought.

No Broadcast Mentality

What doesn’t work in social media is using it as just another way to do traditional advertising. Traditionally it was about broadcasting either why your brand is the best or why it’s better than another brand and why. SmashBurger is more interested in interacting, entertaining, and getting and broadcasting feedback from their customers.

Is this approach working? Does it work to make friends with your customers (online first and also in real life)? Tom didn’t offer any concrete measurement and for now that doesn’t seem to be the point. It’s really a philosophy, but to me it seems like a pretty effective one. Chains and franchises tend to be the exact same wherever they are. In this case, the brand and the approach are the same but it’s up to each location to improvise on the theme. Each mixes social media into their marketing from the start.

The bad part is, I’m on a diet and thought I’d overcome most of my cravings. But I must admit after talking about SmashBurger for an hour, I’m feeling pretty hungry.

About the Author: Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is (and Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.