Justin Sikora

For this case study, we dove into a presentation by Justin Sikora, Darden’s Director of Public Relations and Social Media, at our Member Meeting in Chicago. Justin’s been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2012.

Everyone loves breadsticks — especially social media managers.

“If you put up a post about breadsticks, you’ll get gobs of likes, an unbelievable amount of shares, people tagging their friends, saying, ‘Let’s go tonight,'” says Justin Sikora, Darden Director of Public Relations and Social Media.

“Breadsticks are magic. But breadstick love does not make a community or social strategy,” he says.

When people posted questions, complaints, and bad experiences to Olive Garden’s social presences, no one was responding. Instead, their third-party agency used social to push messaging and advertisements, and that just wasn’t working.

“Historically, we weren’t staffed to care,” he says.

To shift from awareness-driven marketing to customer-centered social, they created a six-month pilot.

Justin says they took five steps during the pilot to turn around their social strategy:

  1. Shift ownership
  2. Embed community managers
  3. Partner with guest relations
  4. Get the team on the map
  5. Adjust the focus

Step 1: Shift ownership of social from the marketing department to PR

“If you want to put a giant target on your back in a marketing-centric organization, tell them they’re not doing something right and then take it from them,” Justin says.

He explains that by giving PR the reins in social, they were more prepared to handle the tough topics like wage discussions, breast feeding in restaurants, and questions about food preparation — all while promoting stuff like Never-Ending Pasta.

Step 2: Bring community managers in-house

Armed with only briefs on promotions, their agency-side community managers knew how to push advertising, but not how to be a voice for the brand. By hiring two community managers, Justin says they were able to get them into the test kitchens, become a part of brand meetings, and build relationships internally at Olive Garden.

Justin admits, “But you can’t just bring community management in even if it costs one-third of the amount to outsource it. Everyone’s sketchy about headcount. So we had to prove a model that allowed us to bring it in.”

Step 3: Partner with guest relations

Justin did four things to get guest relations involved in social:

  1. He brought them in early for whiteboarding sessions.
  2. He made them a part of the decision-making process by asking questions like, “If we were creating a completely new guest relations team, what would it look like?”
  3. He championed their skill set by letting guest relations know social at Olive Garden couldn’t be successful without them.
  4. He gave them all of the credit.

Step 4: Get on the map — literally

For Justin, that meant moving the social team’s offices into the center of the finance department. A risky move, but one that made their team more visible to the company so they could see their failures and successes and be a part of the transition with them.

“Finance heard our shouting over cube walls with new ideas or high-fiving when someone retweeted us. They started inviting us to their events and including us in their birthday celebrations,” Justin says.

“The gamble paid off because they not only became our loudest advocates to the marketing team and to operations, but all the way up to the C-suite.”

Step 5: Adjusting the social team’s focus

“We stopped thinking, ‘How can we use social to benefit us?’ and started thinking ‘How can we use social to benefit our guests?'”

A new always-on schedule meant community managers were there to answer questions during the restaurant’s busiest times. More authentic content meant using photos from the test kitchens and local Olive Gardens, not ad photos. And their new to-do list put social listening as the first priority.

The pilot results: More engagement, stronger guest recovery, big media moments, and a new training program.

Average engagement rates over 100 percent on Instagram, Facebook rose over 200 percent, and on Twitter, over 400 percent. But the results weren’t just quantitative. They were also creating surprise and delight moments, earning back upset customers, and creating advocates by educating their community managers.

“For example, the single highest volume conversation-driver was our new gluten-free pasta. Before, we wouldn’t have had the knowledge to talk about this or have this information, but now, we are able to spend hours and hours engaging with an interested, motivated, and passionate community about gluten-free food.”

Say hi to Justin on Twitter or watch his full case study here.


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