IHOP’s Data Strategy Stacks Up

IHOPA few years ago, pancake purveyor IHOP was doing more push than pull.

“We typically did what many clients do – we pushed a lot of information,” said Kirk Thompson, IHOP’s VP of marketing, speaking at the Ad Club of NY’s MeasurementNOW conference in New York City on Thursday. “We knew a lot about [our customers], but we didn’t necessarily listen very well.”

In order to change that dynamic, IHOP reached out to digital agency MRM/McCann to turn its website into a digital hub that would take better advantage of the brand’s socially engaged fan base by developing a members-only My IHOP loyalty experience. Guests who linked their social accounts to ihop.com could unlock tasty new functionality, like the ability to socially share menu items, rate foods and rack up rewards.

Following the relaunch in 2012, time spent on site reached an average of 3.5 minutes per session and IHOP hit No. 1 on Twitter’s annual list of global trending topics, dethroning Starbucks.

But it wasn’t magic that guided IHOP toward its new more engaged social strategy – it was data, Thompson said, that and social listening. IHOP customers were already discussing the brand on all the usual social network suspects. What IHOP needed to do was find out who these people are, what behavior they engage in, how they influence each other, what causes them to make decisions – the whole shebang.

“That starts with analytics from the agencies combined with social listening and qual and quant and all the hardcore segmentation types of information,” Thompson said. “Part of data is insight. To us, it’s not just a scorecard. We need to be consumer-oriented in the use of that data, consumer-protecting in the use of that data, consumer-empowering in the use of that data and consumer-satisfying in the use of that data.”

That means striking a balance between paid, owned and earned in order to change guests into fans – and fans into active advocates.

“Data allows us to go from awareness to activation,” Thompson said. “Engagement leads to advocacy.”

To that end, IHOP leveraged paid social to jumpstart organic sharing. For example, the brand took advantage of the pancake art trend – using squeeze bottles of batter to craft whimsically shaped pancakes – and created a video to support its “Panuary” campaign, an unlimited pancake and coffee promotion running throughout January.

The company has encouraged customers to form eating teams to collectively polish off pancakes and then tag photos of the empty plates with the #Panuary hashtag on Instagram for the chance to be featured in the Pancakes Hall of Fame.

“We made a conscious decision not to just reapply our TV commercials,” Thompson said.

“It’s fun to participate in the conversation, but now it’s about metrics beyond just did people share, like, follow up,” Thompson said. “Those are basic measurements that everyone works with. We’re moving into, ‘Hey, are those influencers actually driving more business for us?’”

IHOP’s approach to social is a mix of real-time response and slow-burn observation. A restaurant decision, particularly in the quick service category, is determined by a lengthy list of potential factors, including whether a person is driving, who that person is with, what time it is, what day of the week it is and other such considerations. All of those things then play into content strategy. The messaging at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday – family-oriented – is going to be very different from the messaging at 1 a.m. on a Saturday: Let’s hit IHOP on the way home from the bar.

“All of those issues require data and the responsible use of data,” Thompson said. “We build our social voice by listening and learning. It seems intuitive, but it’s very hard for most client organizations to get to this. We’re listening and responding, but over the long-term, not just in the moment. What are they telling me about my business, my category? What do they want us to be?”

Over the last year, IHOP’s been keeping its ear to the ground “listening and watching the entire customer journey,” which Thompson said has affected “every facet of the IHOP business.”

Insight catalyzed into action, he said.

“For example, we change the menu based on recommendations, when people say, ‘I would love it if blank’ or ‘My kids would love to blank,’” Thompson said. “These things help us refine, fine-tune and activate data into meaningful growth for our customer experience and our business.”

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