August 5, 2010, 10:35 AM

How two pizza parlors used Facebook to garner new followers

Two restaurants used Facebook to engage their fans’ love for pizza and each other.

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Home Run Inn, a purveyor of thin crust pizza on Chicago’s South Side, and Lou Malnati’s, a North Side peddler whose trademark pie is deep dish, collaborated this spring on a Facebook-based contest called “Through Thick and Thin.” By firing up the debate about Chicago’s favorite pizza style, the restaurants’ aimed to raise brand awareness, engagement and media buzz and—not to forget—sell more pizza during the busy summer season.

Although e-commerce represents just a small percentage of their business—both restaurants ship frozen pizzas ordered online nationally and Home Run Inn takes carry-out orders online—the traditionally offline nature of pizza didn’t stop them from using the Internet to their advantage.

Working with Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, a marketing firm retained by Home Run Inn, the restaurants recruited nearly 11,000 Facebook followers to select their favorite essay among 92  entries submitted on Facebook by married and engaged couples on their relationships. The prize? A wedding or vow renewal ceremony on one of the rooftops overlooking the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field during the game on June 13.

Blue Chip used a Facebook application developed by technology vendor Wildfire to build the contest’s presentation on the social media site. Both restaurants also promoted the Facebook contest in the restaurants, on pizza delivery boxes and through e-mail to the restaurants’ customer lists. Those promotions also directed consumers who Like the restaurants on Facebook to the promotion page and encouraged fans to click that they Like the promotion. Almost 6,000 obliged, which spread the word widely. On Facebook, when a consumer clicks the Like button, that information is shared among their network of approved friends.

“These people are raising their hands and are really enthusiasts,” says Jaimie Flagg, general manager of Blue Chip’s brand marketing division. “It’s almost like wearing a badge endorsing it. It’s a sticky engagement.”

The entrants to the contest also saw their essays posted on both the Lou Malnati’s and Home Run Inn Facebook pages, which raised awareness of the campaign. “We were reaching our fans on a daily basis and capturing new fans,” Flagg says. All the entries were viewable online and a combination of offline judges and Facebook voting narrowed the entries to the final 15. From there, a popular vote from Facebook visitors determined the winner. Fewer than 200 votes separated first and second place.

Home Run Inn averages 50 new consumers who Like the restaurant daily on Facebook when not running a promotional campaign. During the month-long contest, it averaged more than 250 new consumers daily. It now has 15,000 consumers who Like Home Run Inn that were gathered over the course of a year and through four previous contests.

Flagg says the quality of the fan community on Facebook and the conversations those consumers have about the brand—unique interactions average 350 per week—is what her client considers the most important return on investment measure for its Facebook investment. “A lot of customer service requests are responded to on Facebook, and if we don’t respond quickly enough the community will because its members are involved and know the answers,” Flagg says. “The Facebook community is qualitatively increasing the engagement for people who love Home Run Inn products.”

The winning couple was wed during the game and appeared received TV news coverage. The couple and guests chowed down on pizza from both restaurants.

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