For a lot of retailers and restaurant owners, social media tools don't do much more than help them keep abreast of when regular customers check in at a location, share a picture of their dinners, or talk about their experiences.
That's certainly how the team at Barney's Beanery, a Los Angeles-area restaurant and sports bar, used it for a few years. Then its management looked quite literally down the street from a location to find MomentFeed, a monitoring platform that streamlines disparate social media presences for businesses.
"They were really instrumental in helping us figuring things out," says AJ Sacher, regional manager at Barney's. "We started to look at things a lot differently."
With that tool in place, Barney's was able to run a two-month Instagram photo contest that not only led to a 66 percent increase in engagement via the photo-sharing app, but also increased social media engagement across the board.
Barney's has had a social media coordinator on staff for about two years, and before the chain started using MomentFeed, that coordinator divided his attention among a Facebook page for each restaurant location and a few Twitter accounts.
"We've done kind of what you would assume people do," Sacher says. "We weren't really sure from a restaurant or retail standpoint how to use it efficiently."
Sacher says Barney's did some experimenting with different social media and online trends. For example, the chain tried offering specials through a daily deal company, which didn't really work out.
"It was very difficult to compare the analytics," he says.
So, around January, the company hooked up with MomentFeed via some mutual connections. It made a big difference pretty fast, Sacher says.
"We don't have a lot of time for that end of things, and the platform is so concise and easy to understand," he says. "In a lot of cases, you can identify the customer on an individual basis, look at them across multiple platforms."
For example, MomentFeed shows users' Klout scores, so Barney's can really target the people talking about the brand who have the most influence.
The change had a big impact on the way Sacher and his team thought about social media, too.
"For us the real value is this realization that, when a customer checks in, what they're really doing is promoting your brand to everyone in their network," he says.
By April, the team at Barney's was itching to really do something with this new social media prowess.
"We wanted to do something with Instagram," Sacher says. "Barney's is very conducive to picture taking. It's just kind of a crazy, visual place."
So Barney's started a two-month photo contest. Customers at Barney's were known to photograph themselves with the crazy license plates on the walls or having a drink at their favorite location, anyway.
"We were kind of just thanking them for what they were already doing," Sacher says. "These were all people who were already doing this."
At each location, customers competed for prizes, top prize being a guaranteed table to watch the NBA Finals and a $100 gift card. A second-place winner scored a $50 gift card, and a third-place finisher earned a T-shirt.
"The customers, most of them, are very loyal to their individual locations, the whole neighborhood bar thing," Sacher says.
Indeed, most of the participants in the contest were loyal Barney's customers.
"We actually had a few people that we either commented on or awarded prizes to who didn't even know there was a contest going on," he says.
During the two months of the contest, the Barney's team saw lots and lots of pictures come through, posting many of them elsewhere on the Web. For example, each location posted its winners to Facebook.
"We saw our engagement statistics go way up during the contest," Sacher says. "The really good thing was that it continued at a really high level after the contest."
Foursquare check-ins and Facebook engagement saw an uptick, too he says. The big lesson Sacher says he learned is that customers don't just want to post about what they're doing. They want validation.
"It's closing that engagement loop," he says. "If you hear back from the actual retailer or the restaurant, just to say, 'That's a great picture,' or 'Thank you for coming in,' that alone is kind of the point."
Sacher says Barney's is planning on a similar promotion for the fall, but what he'd really like to do is make Instagram contests a regular event at each location, sort of like a karaoke night or happy hour. It could be an event each location could tweak or put a new spin on every once in a while so it doesn't get stale, he says.
"The only thing I think was lacking from [the spring] promotion was that it ended," Sacher says. "There's a letdown whenever something cool ends."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.