By most accounts, 2012 is the year of the image.
Pinterest, a virtual pinboard in which users share images, has emerged as the third most-popular social network in the U.S. Meanwhile, image-sharing service Instagram—which Facebook bought in the spring for $1 billion—just surpassed 80 million users.
Brands are taking notice of the trend, and many of them have joined Pinterest and Instagram to reach new audiences (and old audiences on new platforms). McDonald’s is among these brands.
“Social media is increasingly becoming a visual [platform],” says Rick Wion, the director of social media at McDonald’s. “We are frequently seeing higher levels of engagement around pictures than just text alone.”
Instagram is an image-sharing service in which users snap photos on their smartphones and apply various filters, which often makes pictures look as if they were plucked from an old photo album.
At the moment, McDonald’s Instagram following is relatively small and, in terms of Pinterest, it’s still in the experimental phase. However, the company recognizes that pictures spark interest and drive engagement.
In fact, Instagram-styled pictures, more than any others, are the most engaging images, according to Wion.
“We’ve starting using them on Twitter and Facebook, which has led to even more positive feedback from our customers,” he says.
Images are also among the many ways that McDonald’s—one of the lead sponsors of the Olympics—is reaching the public during the London Games.
Instagramming the games
During the Olympics, McDonald’s is communicating several messages—from its new menu to its Olympic partnership and onsite activities in London—and pictures are helping the company tell these stories in new and robust ways.
For example, the company is promoting its Favorites Under 400 Menu by tweeting a picture of a different item from the menu every day. The picture is stylized via Instagram.
“This serves as a daily reminder of the breadth of items on that menu,” Wion explains.
The company is also posting pictures from its athlete spokesperson to bring attention to its Win When the USA Wins Gold game. And it’s sharing images of its restaurants in Olympic Park.
Using images beyond the Olympics
After the London Olympics end, McDonald’s will continue to use Instagram to share visual stories of its restaurants—particularly the remodeled ones—and, of course, its food. After all, pictures of food draw the most responses, according to Wion.
“Which isn’t really that surprising,” he says, “because pictures of food are one of the most shared subjects in social media.”
Before any of these pictures go live, McDonald’s assures that it stays true to its brand voice. The company has a review process, which includes creative and legal, for all pictures, Wion says.
Of course, staying true to the brand—and striking the appropriate tone on social media—is no easy task. PR and marketing professionals and social media managers grapple with questions about whether a post should be funny or serious, inspiring or thought provoking.
“While we have used humor at times, we want to make sure that the visuals match our brand voice in social media, which at times is lighthearted, but at other times needs to be more serious,” Wion said.
For example, McDonald’s announced the return of its popular Shamrock Shake via social media. But it opted for a more straightforward tone, as opposed to a humorous one. The company took pictures of two Shamrock Shakes, stylized it through Instagram, and then tweeted the image with the message: “We are proud to announce that for the first time ever the Shamrock Shake will be available nationally.”
The picture quickly became one of the most retweeted and favorited pictures McDonald’s has ever posted to Twitter, according to Wion.
Samantha Hosenkamp is the social media director at PR Daily.